Today we took a tour at Homeboy Industries, founded by Jesuit priest Father Gregory Boyle. Homeboy Industries is a gang-intervention program located in Boyle Heights (no connection), the gang capital of the world. It is a self-sustaining business, bakery, cafe and job source. Look on Netflix for a wonderful documentary about Father Greg called “G-Dog.”
Our tour guide was a huge young felon named LaPaul who just finished a seven-year prison sentence in January of this year. We were only his third tour. He pulled our group into a corner and told us his story. I got his permission to try to tell it to you.
LaPaul is the son of a prostitute and a drug dealer. He has 18 half-brothers and sisters. From a very young age, he witnessed things no child should see or hear. One kindness that his father did for him was to send him to live with his beloved grandmother. She had many health issues but took him in and showed him love and acceptance. As his siblings learned that her house was a safe place, they migrated there as well. Even though none of them were related to her, she took them all in and did the best she could.
When LaPaul was ten years old, he was arrested for discharging a firearm. He was terrified. At the police station, he passed by a grey-headed white man who told him that he loved him. The white man got nothing more than a defensive sideways glance in return. This white man was Father Greg Boyle. LaPaul found out from his grandmother that Father Greg had helped his case.
As LaPaul got older, he was drawn deeper into gang activity. He got his first tattoo at thirteen. Friends that he had known in middle school became lethal enemies merely because they lived in different neighborhoods. At sixteen he was shot five times. He remembers coming in and out of consciousness, and at one point he saw a pale face with a white beard leaning over his bed. The voice said, “I love you, LaPaul.” Once again, Father Greg was nearby at his worst moment.
Trapped in the drug world, LaPaul built a reputation for himself as a drug dealer to be feared. His fellow gang members professed love and loyalty to him. He had all the money he wanted and could buy everything he desired. He drove expensive cars, bought expensive jewelry and attracted expensive women...until the day federal officers surrounded his car and arrested him.
He was sentenced to a lifetime in prison. He said that he became a child again and cried in terror at what he was facing. For the first time, he cried out to God. As he was awaiting his court date, he was called to meet with the judge and was somehow given a sentence of only seven years, to the protests of the prosecuting attorney. As he lived out his sentence, he received a card on his birthday, every year, from Father Greg Boyle.
When he got out of prison the first place he went was Homeboy Industries. He got immediate help, clothes, food and an opportunity to turn his life around. He accepted the challenge. He described the atmosphere there as like being exposed to the Chicken Pox. Once you get close to it, it gets all in you, and you can’t resist it. That was his way of describing infectious love. He explained it like this: “You check your stuff at the door. You don’t bring all that stuff in with you. You may be feeling mean towards someone else, and they may be feeling mean toward you. Rival gang members hang out together here. But once you lay your eyes on Father Greg, you forget about all that. He loves us so much.” I couldn’t help but think of Father Greg as Jesus-with-skin-on. Don’t we have the same response to people when we keep our eyes on Him?
LaPaul is going to be a father in November. He is expecting a little daughter. He is already taking parenting classes so he can be the best Dad he can be to his little girl. And he likes to hang out with his best friend...the man who shot him when he was sixteen years old.
After we left Homeboy Industries, we visited with Anna Kang over coffee, explored The Last Bookstore in downtown LA and then headed over to The House LA to make 200 sandwiches that we will give away on Saturday.
To read more about Father Greg check out his book, Tattoos on the Heart.