DATE February 17, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Father Gregory Boyle discusses his career working with
former gang members in Los Angeles
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The street gang problem hasn't gone away in Los Angeles, but my guest, Father
Gregory Boyle, hasn't given up on the young people who've joined gangs. Boyle
is a Jesuit priest who was the pastor of Dolores Mission Church from 1986 to
'92, a church which serves a poor and predominantly Latino neighborhood in Los
Angeles. Then he founded Homeboy Industries, whose mission is to find jobs
for ex-gang members. It now runs five businesses of its own, including a
silk-screening operation, a landscaping service and a graffiti-removal
service. Homeboy Industries also finds jobs for former gang members and
ex-convicts in businesses that are willing to take a chance on young people at
Father Boyle has put his own life on the line, exposing himself to the
cross-fire of gang violence. One year ago, he found out that illness was
putting his life on the line. He was diagnosed with leukemia, which, he says,
is now in remission. I asked Father Boyle how the amount of gang violence has
changed since he started working with gangs in the '80s.
Father GREGORY BOYLE (Founder, Homeboy Industries): I'd lived through, you
know, that decade of death, which was sort of '88 to '98 and that was really
so intense. And certainly since, you know, roughly '98 to present, we haven't
seen the kinds of gang-related homicides that we did during that period.
But when I was, you know--when I began doing this work and when I was pastor
of Dolores Mission, which is the poorest parish in the city and nestled in two
housing projects with eight very active warring gangs, that was intense. I
mean, that was shootings every night, and I buried a lot of kids. I mean,
I've buried 122 young people killed because of gang violence since '88. '88
was the first time I buried--had to do one of those funerals. But there was a
period of time in there when it was particularly intense and lots of deaths,
and certainly, '92 was the highest number of gang-related homicides in the
history of Los Angeles.
GROSS: I'm sure many of the young people you work with in your nearly 20
years doing this work are now parents and some of them are probably
grandparents. Have you kept up with many of the people who you worked with
when you first started working with gang members?
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah. You know, partly because I'm a priest I probably do more
baptisms than just about anybody. And they're all homies, you know, and every
Saturday is packed with baptisms. And so I'm very, you know, heartened and
touched and humbled by the fact that they ask me to do them. And that's a
nice kind of chapter for them to be able to say, you know, `I kind of lost my
way for a while, and now I have a kid myself and now I want to do it
differently.' And these are kids who often enough, you know, haven't had very
positive experiences of being parented, and so this is new terrain for them.
And so, yeah, I stay very much connected to them.
GROSS: So keeping in touch with people who you worked with when they were in
gangs and are now long out of gangs, have you learned anything about what
seems to reach somebody on a more permanent life-changing basis?
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah. I think part of what really works is the personal
connection, you know, where people feel like a sense of belonging. You know,
I think that's what people experience at Homeboy Industries, the program I
run. You know, community is the fullest, truest antidote to gangs. It really
supplies, you know, a place where kids can truly become the truth of who they
are. They can start to see that they are exactly what God had in mind when
God made them.
I mean, I had one--a kid, who, like, three months ago, came in, and he was 24
years old, released from Corcoran Prison. He was covered in tattoos. I don't
think I ever seen anything quite like this. It looked like he'd been dipped
in ink, you know, and he was--I don't think I had met him. Maybe I'd met him
before when he was a kid at juvenile hall. But very significant that he
stepped into my office. But his arms were covered in tattoos, his neck was
blackened with tattoos, shaved head covered in tattoos, but most prominently,
he had these, like, two black devil's horns tattooed on his forehead. And he
says to me, `You know, I'm having a hard time finding a job,' you know. And
I'm thinking `Let's put our heads together on this one.'
And he says, `You know, I've never worked in my life, you know.' And he was
14 when he went in. And so I hired him at Homeboy Silk Screen, which is our
biggest business and has the most enemies working together. They print shirts
and do embroidery. And I sent him--I said, `Well, you start tomorrow.'
Well, I called him the day after that and I called the factory there and I
said, `Bring that new guy to the phone.' And I said--Carlos was his name--and
I said, `How's it feel to be working?' And he says, `You know, it feels
proper. I'm holding my head up high.' He says, `In fact, I'm like that guy
on the commercial--You know?--the one that walks up to total strangers and
says, "I've just lowered my cholesterol."' And I said, `I'm sorry. I'm not
following this.' And he says, `Yeah, after my first day of work, I was all
tired and dirty and I was on the bus. I couldn't help myself. I just turned
to total strangers on the bus and I said, "I just got back from my first day
of work. Just got back from my first day on the job."'
And I just think, you know, here was a kid who had--Who in the world would
hire this guy, you know? And I suspect the unsuspecting on the bus thought he
was--you know, like he didn't belong to us, you know. But there's no question
in my mind, watching this kid now, still working for us, it totally changed
his life. It gave him a reason to get up in the morning. He feels like he's
filled with a sense of dignity that he had never known before, and it came
through work. And plus, he worked side by--continues to work side by side
with his enemies, and is able to put a human face on somebody who he used to
shoot at or hate and, you know, that's just huge.
GROSS: Does he still have the tattoo on his forehead?
Fr. BOYLE: Oh, he's removing them. We remove tattoos in our office and we
GROSS: In your office?
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah, we have our own kind of a room--we have a state-of-the-art
laser machine and we have a thousand on our waiting list. We removed a
thousand tattoos last year. And we have a slew of doctors who volunteer their
time. It's happening right now in my office. And they come in. It's very
significant, you know, for a gang member to say, `I want to have this
removed.' You know, it was packed with meaning. And we're the only place
around that doesn't ask anything of them. They don't have to do community
service, they don't have to pay a little. It's a very costly procedure. It
would cost them thousands of dollars if they did it elsewhere. But, you know,
you have to wait. But we want to get them in real quick 'cause we acknowledge
it as the significant step that it is. And kids will forever say--lift up
their shirt and say, you know, `I want to get rid of this one.' I used to
say, you know, `Keep your shirt on,' but then they say, `You know, no one will
see it,' and they'll say, `Well, my son will see it and I don't want him to.'
And that's good enough for me.
GROSS: So what are some of the more original tattoos that you've seen removed
over the years?
Fr. BOYLE: I don't think--some of them I can't say on the--Can I say stuff?
I don't know if I can say. There was one, an alarming one, which was sort of
if you can just say `"expletive" the world' on his forehead and that was just
emblazoned. It just filled his forehead. Yet, another one who was having a
hard time getting that McDonald's job, you know?
GROSS: Yeah, that's a real job-killer. Yeah.
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah, right. `May I take your order, please?' And, yeah, so--but
then we erased it, you know? And you want to say everybody is a whole lot
more than the dumbest thing they ever did. And without question, you know,
tattooing that on his forehead was pretty dumb. You know, I saw him a couple
of months ago and, you know, it's completely erased. He used to work in our
bakery that burned down. And, you know, no one would have given that guy a
chance ever, ever. And I was happy that we did, and that, you know, he is now
on with his life.
GROSS: What's he doing?
Fr. BOYLE: He was working as a security guard, actually, at a movie studio.
GROSS: So in addition to hiring people for the Homeboy Industries, you also
send them out to job interviews for other businesses.
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah, nearly 1,000 jobs a month are--I mean, a year--are located.
And, you know, certainly, that's not as high as we would like it to be
relative to the need. We kind of put people most immediately in our
businesses because these are kind of the not-ready-for-prime-time player,
basically, you know, the folk who have been released from a detention facility
and have no kind of soft skills or work ethic or been very familiar with
what's required of you, you know, showing up on time and not missing and
taking orders from disagreeable supervisors. We provide all that for free so
they learn how to do all that stuff so we can send them out.
GROSS: If I were an employer I'd be probably a little skeptical about hiring
somebody with a record, particularly somebody who was a convicted felon. So
what would you do to convince me to give it a shot?
Fr. BOYLE: Well, you know, like I give talks all over the place and I always
say yes to being able to get up there and kind of plead my case and, you know,
you never know, you might have an employer in the crowd and you want people to
kind of feel good about this kind of intentional hiring where they can get up
in the morning and say, `I'm part of the solution in the city of LA because
I've chosen to hire this guy and I'm going to teach him everything I know,'
and, you know, I think that appeals to people. Plus, I think in the end
people can get it, you know? It's--people make mistakes and people understand
the great degree of difficulty really there is in kids in my community, you
know, kind of navigating the treacherous waters of their lives and of their
adolescence. And a lot of times people say, `Oh, so you give them a second
chance.' Well, you kind of want to say, `Well, who was it that gave them
their first one?' you know? These are folks who I stand in awe of what they
have to carry, you know? These are folks whose burdens are more than they can
bear, and they're kind of the most disparaged. And once you get beyond the
fact that, you know, I think--they always say the same thing, employers.
They'll call me and say, `Wow, that was a really eager, good worker,' you
know? Send me somebody else, you know?
GROSS: Now when you say that these young people have burdens greater than they
can bear, what are some of the burdens you're thinking of?
Fr. BOYLE: I just think, you know, I've never met a hopeful kid who joined a
gang, so, you know, you know that any gang member is really coming from a
place of misery that's kind of intense, you know, and a despair that's dark
and bleak. And the bleaker it is, the more that kid's going to act out. And
so I just think they find themselves unparented and drifting and gravitating
perilously close to a gang and then they find themselves in it. And then, you
know, before they know it, they have a record. And before they know it, it's
been years since they've been formally educated. And then pretty soon it just
becomes this dark place that you have to reach down and say, `Come on. You
know, it's not a hole in the end. It's a tunnel. And trust me, there's
light. And I'll walk with you till you get to the light. After such time,
you can walk on your own.'
I mean, I grew up in the same city as these kids did in the gang capital of
the world and, you know, I had wonderful family and terrific parents and
opportunities and there's no chance I ever would have joined a gang but that
fact doesn't make me morally superior to these kids who just simply have to
carry more, deal with more, encounter more and have more obstacles in their
path than my life ever presented me with.
GROSS: What are some of the things you tell young people before sending them
out for job interviews?
Fr. BOYLE: Well, our job developers kind of do a lot of that stuff, you
know? They kind of do the protocol and the kind of crash course on what to do
and what not to do and we have kind of a litany of, you know, who knew--you
know, we had to tell them not to slug the guy, you know, or, you know...
GROSS: To slug the critical supervisor.
Fr. BOYLE: Right. You know, it--I guess we neglected to put that in
our--and that happened once, you know, and it was because he thought he had
been slighted and it was just terrible. But it's never happened again. But
it was very isolated. But, you know, we kind of tell them kind of how to do
it and how to--and, plus, for our core group, we have 100 employees and homies
who work in all our different businesses and we insist that they all go
through a--we have a curriculum where we talk about everything from parenting
to courtesy issues to anger management and coping skills. So want them to
leave the Homebody Industries part, which is, you know, temporary, really,
with skills to be able to manage their lives, you know, in the regular kind of
GROSS: My guest is Father Gregory Boyle. He works with gangs and former gang
members in Los Angeles. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Father Gregory Boyle. He's a Jesuit priest who works with
gangs and former gang members in one of LA's poorest neighborhoods. He
founded Homeboy Industries, which finds jobs for former gang members and
One of the things you're proud of with Homebody Industries is that members of
rival gangs work together. What's it like early on when somebody is starting
to work there for the first time and for the first time they're supposed to be
getting along with rival gang members?
Fr. BOYLE: Well, they always say the same thing, you know? They want the
job. And I say, `Well, I'm going to have you work over there at the Silk
Screen, and you have to work with these guys.' And they'll always say, `I'll
work with them but I won't talk to them.' You know, they always say that.
And, you know, you can just look at your watch and time it with--in a short
order, they're talking to each other. I had these two kids, a kid named
Youngster and another kid named Caesar--Puppet they called him--and they were
enemies. I introduced Youngster to the Silk Screen and he had--I introduced
him, walked him around. They shook hands with enemies and I thought, `Well,
this is a good sign,' till we came to this kid, Puppet. They wouldn't shake
hands. They just stared at their shoes, you know, and I knew they were
enemies, of course.
I found out later this was a deeply personal hatred and hostility. And I told
them at the time, you know, `If you can't hang, if you can't do this, you let
me know. I got a lot of other people who want this job.' And they didn't say
anything. Three months later, Puppet found himself surrounded in an alley by
10 enemies. He was walking home from a little store. And they beat him badly
and they kicked him while he was down, and they kept kicking his head. They
wouldn't stop kicking his head till finally he was lying there lifeless and he
was taken to a local hospital and was on kind of life support and brain-dead
basically. I've never seen anything quite as horrible as this. His head was
many times swollen.
But during that 48-hour period, before he was disconnected and I buried him, I
got a phone call from this kid, Youngster, who had worked with him for three
months, and he said, `That's messed up about what happened to Puppet.' And I
said, `Yeah, it was.' And then he said, `Is there anything I can do? Can I
give him my blood?' And we both sort of fell silent under the weight of it,
and I could hear him sort of--he started to choke back his tears, and he said,
with great deliberation, `He was not my enemy; he was my friend. We worked
together.' And there was this--you know, I asked myself, `Does that happen
all the time. Does it ever not happen?' It's always happened. It always
GROSS: Do you worry that kids will bring weapons to work? You know, are they
ever searched for that? Or would that be disrespectful and something you
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah, I mean, they--I suspect it's happened. I know we've had
guys coming in to look for work, so not employees of mine, and I know they've
been armed because someone will always flag it, say, `Hey, you know, Lefty
just came in; he has a gun.' So I'll call him in and they know that it's sort
of a heightened disrespect of me and they don't like to do it. Sometimes
they'll--I've seen it happen where they'll park their guns somewhere and
decidedly not choose to walk in with it. A lot of that had--you know,
this--the great myth of protection, you know, `I carry a gun for protection,'
and I always tell them, `Name a single time this has worked. Name a single
time when a life has been saved because somebody has carried a gun.' They
won't be able to ever name that time. And I said, `Well'--and we don't have
time to talk about the number of lives lost or ruined because of a gun. It's
a hard thing to reason with them. But, certainly, you know, they know that
that can't happen if you're an employee of mine. And--but there's a kind of
heightened sense of respect for the place, you know? They know what it stands
for and they generally speaking have--they know how to be respectful in terms
of not bringing the weapons.
GROSS: One of the rationalizations for not working, which has become almost a
cliche, is, `Why should I serve burgers at McDonald's when I could get paid a
whole lot more selling drugs?' How do you answer questions like that? And
how much do you pay the workers at Homebody Industries? Is it minimum wage?
It it above that?
Fr. BOYLE: No, we always pay higher than minimum, and we
encourage--employers sometimes will say, `How much should we pay?' And I'll
say, `Well, pay, you know, a just wage.' And so we try to approximate a just
wage as much as we can and then insurance and that kind of thing.
GROSS: Health insurance?
Fr. BOYLE: Uh-huh, yeah. So we try to, you know, model that for the
prospective employers, but, you know, if you are utterly convinced that a gang
member is a human being who has the same desires and kind of dreams as any
human being, then no one would be surprised to learn that they in fact would
rather have a, you know, above-minimum wage job rather than go out, running up
to a car and trying to sell crack. It has to do with kind of a sense of
dignity and pride and nobility and they want their kids to be able to say, you
know, `My dad drives a truck.' And they're kind of deathly afraid of the kid
reaching an age where the kid will say out in the yard, `Well, my dad sells
drugs,' you know? And plus walk around, look at the profiles--most gang
members that sell drugs, you know, they're not buying the house in the
suburbs, you know? That money, as they will tell you, quickly, you know,
it's called dirty money, easy money, and it's not the same as clean money.
You don't--you spend it differently. You kind of value it differently. And
they'll all tell you that.
GROSS: I'm sure that you feel frustrated because you can't reach every young
person you reach out to. Do you ever feel like, you know, a young person is
just beyond your reach, that they're just--you know, nothing's going to get
through to them?
Fr. BOYLE: No, I mean, I--yeah, because I've seen many, many kids who you
kind of secretly say, `Boy, I'm not sure anybody will ever be able to reach
this kid.' And then I've watched the kid, you know, find the place within
himself to kind of say, `Oh, I don't want any part of that anymore.' So, I
mean--but you do encounter sometimes serious mental illness and psychopathic
behaviors or sociopathic. But that's so tiny and that's a small slice of this
group. But mainly I've been surprised many times by kids who you thought,
`I'm not sure this is ever going to work,' and then it does.
GROSS: Father Gregory Boyle works with gang members and former gang members
in Los Angeles and is the founder of Homebody Industries. He'll be back in
the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
Coming up, a Homeboy parable--we continue our conversation with Father Gregory
Boyle about working with gang members in one of LA's poorest and toughest
neighborhoods. Also, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by Dan Reeder, a
singer/songwriter whose homemade CD first caught the attention of
singer/songwriter John Prine.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Father Gregory Boyle.
Since the mid-'80s he's worked with gang members and former gang members in
one of LA's poorest and toughest neighborhoods. He's the former pastor of
Dolores Mission Church. He founded Homeboy Industries, which runs five
businesses whose mission is to provide jobs to former gang members and help
turn their lives around. It also finds jobs for former gang members and
ex-convicts in businesses willing to take a chance on young people at risk.
Where does God, faith, religion come in in your interactions with gang
members? Do you talk to them about religion? Do you try to get them back to
the church? Or is it about jobs and about straightening out their lives, and
if, you know, they choose to learn more about religion, that's their issue?
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah. You know, I think part of--I'm in 25 different detention
facilities, where I say Mass, so I'm talking to these kids. And I, you know,
try to explain...
GROSS: You're a busy guy.
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Fr. BOYLE: Yes. So I try to explain, you know, the Gospel to them at their
level, you know. So I'm always telling stories about, you know, homies and
kind of parables of homies seeing the light or not seeing the light, you know.
And I primarily want to speak to them the good news that they're OK and that
they're beloved, you know. And so that comes up certainly when they're not
locked up and when they're in my office. But, you know, part of, I think,
from my own Christian perspective, you know, Jesus isn't expecting us to sort
of--kind of constantly talking about or announcing a message, you know. His
hope is that we become that message. You know, God doesn't want us endlessly
to praise God for being compassionate. God is hoping that we will spend our
time being compassionate.
So, you know, I kind of want to live as if the truth were true, and I want to
go where love has not yet arrived. And you want to choose to stand with the
folks that God chooses to stand with. And in that action, you know, it's not
about words. I mean, I think it's not about kind of, `You're going to have to
hear this message if you want a job here. You're going to have to have to sit
down and hear my preachifying.' I just don't believe in that. You've know,
I've been on panels...
GROSS: Yeah, it's like the old mission model, you know, where you could get
your free doughnuts and you could get your free soup as long as you come in
and sing the prayers and, you know, listen to the service.
Fr. BOYLE: I mean, frankly, you know, I got visited by the Department of
Justice, and I think they're, you know, pursuing some kind of--you know, the
whole faith-based kind of approach. And I don't know if I pleased them, you
know, because they were asking, you know, how much do I talk about, you know,
Jesus as their personal savior. And I don't do it because I just think it's
not appropriate to do it in that context. People want concrete help.
I mean, I've been on panels with kind of born-again folks, and with all due
respect, who will say things like, `I don't know why we're talking about
economic justice and jobs when what we really need to be telling these kids is
that Jesus is their personal savior.' And, of course, you know, no one would
be more horrified by that perspective than Jesus. You know, he would say,
`What? What are you talking about?' You know, this is about rolling up your
sleeves and really walking with folks who are having a hard time. And it's
about concrete help. It's not about inserting a message in their earlobe.
It's about somehow showing them that--somehow imitating the kind of God you
believe in, one who loves without measure and without regret, one whose joy it
is to love us, you know.
And pretty soon, you know, it's like the Zen saying the finger pointing to the
moon is not the moon; it just points to it. You want to be able to live a
life that points to the moon, that somehow indicates to them the kind of God
we have without preaching at them. You know, it's not about them listening to
me anyway. It's about me listening to them and, in that action, somehow
conveying the deepest spiritual reality. I think all we are about is God and
spirituality at Homeboy Industries. It's the only reason to do it.
GROSS: Could I ask you to tell a short homeboy parable?
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah. I kind of used it. A homey who works with me named Robert
called me on New Year's Day, and he said, `Happy New Year's.' And I thanked
him--20 years old, completely rejected by his family, had been living on his
own in a crummy apartment just barely making it. And I said, `You know, I was
thinking of you. How was your Christmas?' because this was during Christmas.
`What'd you do Christmas?' And he goes, `I was just right here in my
apartment.' I said, `By yourself?' He said, `No. I invited a couple of the
homies that I work with who didn't have a place to go either,' and these were
enemies. I said, `Really? And what'd you do?' And he goes, `You're not
going to believe it. I cooked a turkey.' I said, `Really? You cooked a
turkey?' He goes, `Yeah.'
I said, `Well, how'd you prepare it?' He said, `Ghetto style.' I said,
`Well, I'm not familiar with that recipe. What's ghetto style?' And he said,
`Well, you rub it with butter, and I poured a gang of salt and pepper on it,
then I squeezed two limonas,' two lemons, `all over it. I popped it in the
oven. It tasted proper,' he said, which is a very gang expression. It tasted
proper. And I said, `Wow! What else did you have besides turkey?' And he
said, `That's it, just turkey.' I said, `Really?' He goes, `Yeah, the six of
us just sat in the kitchen staring at the oven waiting for that turkey to be
done. Did I mention that it tasted proper?' he said.
And I thought, for me, that's what it's about. It's about six vatos, you
know, six gang members, enemies, no place to go sitting in a kitchen staring
at an oven waiting for the turkey to be done. You know, that's as sacred and
as ordinary as the Last Supper, you know. I can't remember the context which
I mentioned that, but that's an example of--it's not really a story so much as
an image of people hanging on to each other and declaring with unshakable
certainty that, `We belong to each other.'
GROSS: Did you suggest a side dish for the next time? Some potatoes to go
along with it?
Fr. BOYLE: I said, `Sometimes your guests actually expect more than just a
Fr. BOYLE: But, you know, next year we may have something of--I'll try to
expand his menu.
GROSS: Yeah. That's a great story.
Fr. BOYLE: It is.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Father Gregory Boyle, and he
works with gang members in Los Angeles. He founded something called Homeboy
Industries, which gives jobs to many gang members and helps other gang members
find jobs. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Father Gregory Boyle, and since the 1980s he's been
working with gang members in Los Angeles. He founded Homeboy Industries,
which finds jobs for young people and also has several businesses that give
jobs to young people.
Well, something that's fairly new for you is that you were diagnosed with
leukemia, and thank goodness you're in remission now. You've had chemo.
You're now in remission. But how did that affect the gang members when they
found out that your life was in jeopardy? And these are people who'd put
their own and each other's lives in jeopardy all the time.
Fr. BOYLE: It was a remarkably gracious period for me. You know, I would not
trade that moment for anything. I was diagnosed, I guess, the beginning of
April, and I began chemo right away. And so it was out of the woodwork.
Folks would come back--and, really, for two months I had to just tell myself,
`This is now my ministry. My ministry is to allow these folks to come back,
sit in my office, sob and cry.' And they needed to tell me where I had been
for them. And then it allowed me an opportunity to reciprocate.
I remember getting a voice mail from a homegirl name Cheena(ph), where she
said, `Now it's our turn to take care of you.' Very sweet. And I remember a
kid named Grumpy, big huge guy, no neck and tattoos, standing in front of my
desk big tears in his eyes. And he says, `What do I have that you need?' you
know, meaning organs, you know, not that I needed any, but I think it was the
thought that counted, you know.
My favorite one was a kid who called me not that long ago collect from jail, a
guy named--we called him Loco. And he said, `What's this leukemia anyway?' I
said, `Well leukemia, it's in the blood. My white count is too high.' And he
goes, `Oh, those doctors, they don't know anything.' I said, `What do you
mean?' He said, `Well, hello, of course your white count is high. You
white.' And it was an endless stream of this sort of joyous, tearful,
wonderful kind of--just absolute grace upon grace.
And, you know, they'd drive me to my chemo because you're really not supposed
to drive yourself. And so, you know, I'd have the graffiti crew. I'd hop in
the truck and they'd drop me off. And just wonderful, you know. And, you
know, feeling fine and everything, and you know, and then it sort of triggered
all these lifetime achievement awards from all sorts of organizations because
apparently they thought I had reached my lifetime, so--but it was always...
GROSS: Well, you were told that, weren't you? I mean, I read that you were
given five to six years to live.
Fr. BOYLE: No, I don't know where that came from. I think it--the doctor
would--never told me anything like that. I think it came from just sort of my
own study of--I'd be in a Barnes & Noble, and I'd pick out a new cancer book,
and it would say, you know, `Prognosis: five to six years.' And I think
somehow that got repeated somewhere. And so it appeared somewhere in the
press or in LA Times here. So, you know, `I suspect, you know, that this will
all come back again in a year,' is what he told me. But, you know, and then
I'll have to deal with it again either with kind of another round of chemo or
But right now, I'm back at it. But it was a remarkably gracious time of--and
it was good for kids to be able to kind of say, `Now you need to listen to
this. You need to shut up and listen to this.' They would say it like that,
you know. And I had had to kind of put on hold my life. I couldn't do all
the work I needed to do, because this was the work that needed to be done.
They needed to come in, and they needed to say that with great tears. And
then it was consoling for them, because, I think, when they heard `cancer' and
they heard `chemo,' you know, they needed to come and kind of see me. And I
think, you know, that they could see I wasn't falling apart, and I'm kind of
hair-deprived anyway, so we always joked about, you know, chemo didn't take my
hair, 'cause God had sort of done that prior to this, so...
GROSS: Now you've risked your life before. You've been in the middle of
sprays of bullets just in the work that you do, working with gangs. So, you
know, you've taken your risks. You've come close to the edge. But this is a
different kind of coming close to the edge, so how did you take the news that
you had a potentially life-threatening illness?
Fr. BOYLE: Well, you know, I have kind of a light grasp on these things. I
don't know why this is or even claim, you know, that this is some kind of
superior way to be. It's just death is not on my top 10 list of things to
dread. You know, I more often than not dread meeting payroll or that kind of
thing or far sillier things. It just doesn't compute with me, and so I never
had a moment of `Why me?' and `Oh, my God,' and it was just a--you know, and
again, I don't mean to portray that as overly noble or courageous. It just is
not in--but you recognize that it is on everybody else's list, so they project
onto you your great fears of mortality. And so you have to be sensitive not
to trivialize their anxiety about me, though I don't...
GROSS: What about pain and suffering. Where does pain, suffering,
discomfort--where does that come in, in your list of dreads?
Fr. BOYLE: It just doesn't. I mean, you know, I had a relatively, you know,
good run with the chemo. I mean, I was telling people that on any given day,
I was one of the Seven Dwarfs, you know, Grumpy or Sleepy or Sneezy or--I
don't know if Itchy is one of them, but he ought to be. And sometimes, I was
all seven of the Seven Dwarfs at once. And that was it. You know, it wasn't
more traumatic than that. Sometimes, I just didn't feel good enough to come
in, and people gave me, you know, the room to do that. And other times, I was
at my desk, or I cut back on some of my camps, you know, and jails, because,
you know, I just--even now my antibodies aren't that high, and my resistance
isn't--their concern is that I might get something that they won't be able to
fight, you know, so I'm careful, you know. Cut back a little bit, but I'm
back at it really now.
So--and part of the thing is I've seen some of the most extraordinarily
heartbreaking, you know, sufferings of mothers losing their sons and mothers
losing multiple sons, you know? You just can't wrap your mind or heart around
the depth of that kind of pain. And I'm the luckiest man alive. I wouldn't
trade my life for anybody's. And so I just feel like it just wasn't an issue,
GROSS: Have your prayers changed since you were diagnosed? And I don't mean,
you know, kind of praying for good health, praying for things. But I'm
thinking that sometimes prayer is a distraction from--a way of refocusing the
mind away from self-attention, or away from discomfort, away from one's own
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah. You know, I kind of--stepping back from that, I have a
healthy respect for kind of this source of force of prayer which wasn't kind
of it for me, you know, even the petitionary part. I mean, there was a group
of women from the projects every Thursday night gathered in the church,
praying only because I had leukemia, and just powerfully gathering, and large
numbers of them. And that wasn't sort of ever on my prayer kind of radar, you
know. And for me personally to say, `Please, Lord, take this away from me,'
that's just not--my prayer is kind of more--somehow I want my heart to be the
shape of God's, you know, and so I want to center myself in the heart of God
and live from that heart. So that's all I care about in prayer. And I want
to find myself one, you know?
But I have kind of a healthy respect for the power of people who prayed, you
know. I don't fully understand that mystery, but I--you know, and those women
have duly taken credit for the fact that I'm in remission. And, you know, I
say, `Yeah, I guess.' You know, I think it's a wonderful thing that
challenged me and encouraged me to kind of see a deeper side to prayer that I
had sort of dismissed as just petitionary.
But for me personally, I don't think it changed--you know, it keeps you
focused on today. And I always think of the desert monks centuries ago;
whenever they were greatly distressed or despondent, really, they would just
repeat on word over and over again to themselves. And the word wasn't `Jesus'
or the word wasn't `love.' The word was `today.' And I understand that
mantra. I understand that keeps you here. It keeps you facing the person
who's facing you. It keeps you present to God revealed magnificently in front
GROSS: Before we have to wrap up, just to give us a sense of what your daily
life is like, what's the agenda like today?
Fr. BOYLE: You know, mainly, like, by the time I get back, they always know
what time I'm going to be there, so I'll be there from 1:00 to 5:00. So today
will be just an absolute steady flow of folks mainly who've been released from
detention who have called me and said, `I just got out, and remember, you gave
me your card?' And so I'll try to kind of facilitate that. And this
afternoon will be packed with folks coming through, because I've been out of
town for a couple days, giving talks. And so it's kind of a backup, you know,
where they know that I'm going to be there, and so they'll be ready, hoping
for something--the hope of something, you know.
GROSS: Do you ever feel like there's too many people, you don't have enough
time to give them each what they require?
Fr. BOYLE: Yeah, only every day, you know? So--yeah. That's a constant one.
And that's one where I need to always challenge myself and just say, `I can
only do what I can do.' And I--you know, for me, my pivotal image is of a
dream a kid had who saw him and me in a big locked room with no windows, pitch
black, and we don't speak to each other. And in the dream, he says that I
have a flashlight, and I pull it out, and I aim it at the light switch. No
words are exchanged. And the kid says that he knows that in this dream--he
knows that he's the only who can turn the light switch on. He's deeply
grateful that I happen to have a flashlight. And so in the dream, he walks
over to the light switch, flips it on, and the room is filled with light. And
as he's telling me this dream, he's starting to sob. And he says with kind of
a great discovery, `The light is better than the darkness,' like he never knew
that. And I just feel that frees me. I don't have to turn on the light
switch on for anybody, but I want to be able to shine the light so that that
kid can do it himself, you know.
GROSS: Well, nice image to end on. Father Boyle, thank you so much for
talking with us, and good luck with your work, and good luck with your health.
Fr. BOYLE: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Father Gregory Boyle works with gang members and former gang members
in Los Angeles, where he founded Homeboy Industries.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker introduces us to the music of
singer, songwriter and painter Dan Reeder. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Dan Reeder's first homemade CD
TERRY GROSS, host:
Dan Reeder is a California-born artist, a painter who currently lives in
Germany and dabbles in music. He sent his first homemade CD to
singer-songwriter John Prine, who offered Reeder a two-record deal on his Oh
Boy Records label and started selling the self-titled "Dan Reeder Collection"
on the Oh Boy Web site. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Reeder's music is worth
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. DAN REEDER: (Singing) I can play three chords on this old homemade
guitar. Sounds just like Van Morrison in his better days. And if you could
stop me, you would have already, 'cause jealousy is obviously killing you.
KEN TUCKER: Dan Reeder writes and sings a kind of parody of the blues and R&B
that somehow manages to avoid coyness or irony. That is to say, it works as
music. Part of its allure is its homemade quality. You hardly need to read
the liner notes to know that Reeder sings all the harmonies himself and even
built some of his own instruments, junk guitars, he calls them, which also
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. REEDER: (Singing) Tulips on the table mean that spring is on the way.
The sun shines through the window like it hasn't shone in days. And lately
you don't listen to a single thing I say. My baby don't love me anymore. My
baby don't love me anymore. My baby don't love me anymore. I come home from
work, and you say, `It's nice to see you.' I take off my jacket and say,
`Nice to see you, too.' But I can't help but notice you hate everything I do.
My baby don't love me anymore. My baby don't love me...
TUCKER: It's easy to hear why this music appealed to John Prine, himself a
do-it-yourselfer with a gift for wry wordplay. More folky than bluesman, but
certainly attuned to Dan Reeder's wavelength. Like Prine, Reeder doesn't have
much of a voice. It's, well, reedy, scratchy like Leon Redbone with fewer
mannerisms or early Jesse Winchester with more energy. There's also a nice
randy side to Dan Reeder that gives his music umph. I like the song I can't
play about the two things he wants most, money and a coarse euphemism for sex,
as well as a composition whose entire lyric consists of the line, `I got all
the work I need,' except that work is proceeded by the F-word. Trust me,
you'll want to play it because it'll ring true inside you, not because it's
As it is, I can play this midlife, well, not exactly crisis song, but midlife
escapist song: "The Musings of a Married Father of Three."(ph)
(Soundbite of "The Musings of a Married Father of Three")
Mr. REEDER: (Singing) I've got a job, three kids and a wife. I've got a
baseball cap and Swiss Army knife, and I guess I'd have to say I can't
complain. But I think almost every day I'll leave this mess, make my getaway
and throw off these shackles and chains. Shackles and chains, shackles and
chains, I ought to throw all these shackles and chains. I've got a job, three
TUCKER: There's a line on his CD jacket that reads: Dan Reeder, The Power
That Comes From Nowhere. He means it self-deprecatingly on one level, as in,
`Where did this guy come from?' but I also like to think that he means the
phrase as an acknowledgement that he doesn't know where the creative part of
his brain comes from, but the power that comes from nowhere is in each of us.
It's our imagination, and the choice we have to heed that power and do
something with it or ignore it. Dan Reeder did something with his power that
compelled him to send his music to John Prine and, in turn, for Prine to use
his own apportionment of power to get this music out into the world. The rest
is up to us. Oh, and by the way, to judge from the reproductions on his CD
jacket, the guy's a darn good painter, too. I'd buy one if it had the art
equivalent of an Oh Boy Records Web site.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Dan Reeder's new self-titled CD on Oh Boy Records.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. REEDER: (Singing) I inject your kryptonite into my brain. It improves
my kung fu and it eases the pain during acceleration when the pedal hits the
floor. This thing burns nitroglycerin and powdered C4. And I will always
love you. I drive a modified T-series Lola. It's kind of heavy, but I like
the feel. When I say Vietnam, it sounds just like Coca-Cola. I believe most
anything as long as it's not real, and I will always love you. I battle
aliens from outer space. They got one eye right in the middle of their face.
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