Miracle of the Loaves
12/15/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
It is a grim but ultimately hopeful story, as Father Gregory Boyle tells it. Not long ago, in East L.A., a 20-year-old named Cesar Valdenegro was jumped and kicked to death by gang-bangers as he walked home from his job at Homeboy Silkscreen. But during the 48 hours he lingered in a coma, something remarkable happened. A rival gang member, a coworker at Homeboy, called Father Boyle offering to give his blood—anything—to save Cesar's life. "They had worked side by side," says Boyle. "It broke the barriers down."
Breaking barriers is an apt description of what Boyle himself is up to. In Dolores Mission, the poorest Catholic parish in Los Angeles, the 43-year-old Jesuit uses jobs to tumble the walls between toughs living in the surrounding gang-infested projects and a meaningful future. "I gave up a long time ago on saving people, but these kids are my pride and joy," says Boyle, who has buried 59 youngsters, all victims of gang violence, in 10 years at Dolores. "You are not called to be successful. You're called to be faithful, and my mission is to accompany them."
He does far more than just accompany them. Boyle has led many of his kids to productive lives. In 1992 he started Homeboy Industries, which now, with funding from KPWR, a hip-hop FM station, operates three companies—a bakery, a T-shirt silk-screening operation and a merchandising unit that sells items with the Homeboy logo. "The fact is, Father Greg makes it possible for us to work," says baker Roman Gonzalez, 27. "I have two felonies. Other guys have tattoos. People look at those things before they even get to your résumé."
Boyle's own résumé begins in L.A., his hometown, where his father was a dairy manager and his mother a homemaker responsible for eight kids. Boyle can't remember a time when he didn't want to be a priest. "More than a priest, I wanted to be a Jesuit," he says of the order noted for its scholarship and social activism. "There's more of a sense of community—an exciting, on-the-edge vision." After attending four schools and acquiring bachelor's and master's degrees, Boyle was a grief counselor at a Massachusetts hospice, ran a soup kitchen in Spokane, Wash., and worked with the poor in Bolivia and New York City's South Bronx. He arrived at Dolores Mission in '86. "I came and didn't know anything," he says. "[But] there was a reality you couldn't avoid. Junior-high-age kids were on the street selling crack."
Realizing that most of the teenagers had dropped out or been thrown out of school and had no place to go, Boyle started a job-training center and, after that, Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Bakery opened first as a tortilla factory, which went belly-up, and then began making French and Italian bread for the Frisco Baking Co. in nearby Cypress Park. "We're a little surprised at how fast the kids caught on," says Jim Pricco, co-owner of Frisco, noting that Homeboy has raised its productivity level from 600 to 1,500 loaves a day. "We can't afford to put out a bad product. The bread is coming out really well."
In fact all three of the businesses are doing well. Homeboy Merchandise sells about $6,000 a month worth of sweatshirts, golf shirts, mugs and caps with the Homeboy logo. And Homeboy Silkscreen—a one-stop operation where screens are made, coated and printed onto T-shirts that are pressed, folded and packaged—is a legitimate small-business success that will log $500,000 in sales this year. But Boyle, who admits he isn't the savviest financial mind around, seems unconcerned about the bottom line. "Whenever it looks like we're making a profit," he explains, "we hire somebody else, because the idea is to give jobs. Of course we're not losing money, but if we do..." He pauses. "I don't know. God will provide."
As far as the kids themselves are concerned, God has already provided—by giving them Boyle. "Father Boyle has brought me a long way," says Juan Carlos Marquez, 27, director of Home-boy Merchandise, who spent two years in juvenile detention for assaulting a teacher he felt had "disrespected" his sister. "I regret what I've done, and I feel I have to make an extra effort just to make it up," he adds. "Father Greg told me about this 16th-century poet who said, 'Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.' That goes through my head all the time."
LEILA COBO-HANLON in East Los Angeles