When we read the newspaper or watch our news feeds, we learn about people doing horrendous things to each other. If we allowed ourselves, we could become inundated with evidence of our inherent inhumanity.
It then becomes very easy to conclude that evil people walk among us and that something drastic needs to be done to them.
Greg Boyle has been working with individuals who do horrendous things for over 30 years. Despite his association with some of the most violent criminals in the United States, he has found himself unable to condemn anyone.
After reflecting on the concept of evil and the people he works with, Boyle came to the following conclusion:
Demonizing is always the opposite of the truth.
How can he make such a radical statement? If demonizing is its opposite, what then is truth?
In 1988, Boyle, a Catholic priest working in the Los Angeles neighbourhood with the highest rate of gang violence in the United States, began an employment training initiative called Jobs for a Future. This expanded into Homeboy Industries, which now employs hundreds and provides services for thousands of people, including the Homeboy Bakery and Homegirl Café.
Boyle has performed hundreds of funerals. And he has watched people he has cared about kill other people he cared about. Through his interactions, he has discovered that people do terrible things because they’re dealing with pain. Many things can torment a person’s spirit and lead them to commit acts of violence.
Yet there’s also something inside of individuals that makes them want to overcome their anger and pain, that makes them want to change. And if channeled the right way, it allows them to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
When people speak of Boyle and the network he has founded, two words are frequently repeated: compassion and tenderness.
The proof of the effectiveness of Boyle’s philosophy is in the success of his work. While the criminal justice system in California does little more than exacerbate the cycle of violence, Boyle has helped thousands to get their lives back and heal their communities.
Homeboy Industries runs a series of successful businesses, all employing primarily former gang members. It also receives government support and charitable donations, and offers a vast array of programs to help people get the training and support they need to turn their lives around. It has also inspired many similar movements all around the world.
A beautiful piece of Boyle’s message is that we have each been given gifts in life. He realizes how privileged he was, for example, to grow up in a supportive home and receive a top-notch Jesuit education at such institutions as Gonzaga and Loyola Marymount universities. Yet with our gifts, and even with our challenges, comes a great responsibility to use them in service to others. Feeling guilt serves little purpose, but if we look beyond that initial feeling we will find a call to do more with our lives, to really make a difference.
Perhaps this is the truth that Boyle’s speaking about. It’s far too easy to look at others as the problem with the world. It’s far too easy to look at our own brokenness and see only guilt. It’s much harder to see our own commonality as humans, along with the incredible gifts that lie beyond our fears and failings.
This is the truth that’s the opposite of demonizing. It’s the truth that brings satisfaction to our lives, and the truth that brings peace to our world.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.