Interview: Father Greg Boyle

Father Greg Boyle is a Jesuit priest, author, and Founder/Executive Director of Homeboy Industries, which provides hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women. Here are his thoughts on joy's maintenance contract, handling criticism, and what he hopes the answer to every question will be.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?

I’m a Jesuit priest and I’ve been privileged to be part of Homeboy Industries, which is the largest gang intervention rehab and reentry [organization] on the planet.

Where do you draw hope from?

Being part of this community of tenderness and receiving people. A very earnest, hardcore gang intervention worker asked me once, “How do you reach gang members?” And I said, “For starters, stop trying to reach them. The only question worth asking is, ‘Can you be reached by them?’"

It’s a wholly selfish endeavor. I just show up and I try to be reached by them. The byproduct of that is people feel ennobled, empowered, and a renewed sense of dignity. People inhabit the truth of who they are. Not because you’re trying to convince them of something or trying to insert [a] message into their ears, but because you chose to value them and allow yourself to be reached by them.

It’s about allowing yourself to be touched, moved by the poor, the folks on the margins, the folks who know what it’s like to have been cut off and because they know that particular pain, they’re the most trustworthy people to guide us and lead us to a sense of kinship.

How do you respond to cynicism?

Cynicism is probably born from our inability to stand in awe at what poor folks have to carry; so, [cynicism] is really about standing in judgment at how they carry it. There isn’t an abiding appreciation for the difficulty for folks who are poor to somehow navigate their lives.

There was a young woman named Nelly who I’ve known for a long time and she’s suffered greatly. Her resume reads: Prostitute, gang member, drug addict, felon, parolee, prisoner. She’s suffered that particular suffering of a mother whose kids have been taken from her and are raised by strangers. She grew up in torture, terror, violence, and abandonment. The truth is I would not have survived one day of her childhood. The day won’t ever come when I’m more noble or have more courage than Nelly.

So, she’s in my office and she’s leaning on the front of my desk, and she’s what we call in Spanish a chillona, she’s very sensitive, cries at the drop of a hat. Out of the blue, she says, “I wish you were God.” And I said, “Why?” Then she starts to cry and she says, “I think you’d let me into heaven.” This so startles me that I become a chillon, my eyes fill with tears, and I reach across the expanse of my desk, and I say, “Nelly, I swear to you if I get to heaven and you’re not there, I'm not staying.”

I remember resting in this place of exquisite mutuality. It wasn’t about me saving her or even loving her. It was about both of us being returned to ourselves. The world will look at her and say, "Doesn’t she know the difference between right and wrong? If she had her kids taken from her, she must have been a total screw-up." Again, it’s how we walk down the path of judgment, which will always lead to division and is the opposite of kinship. As opposed to, "Wow," stand in awe at Nelly, whose had to carry more than I’ve ever had to carry.

What leaves you in awe?

Part of full-fledged awe is delighting in people, enjoying them, laughing with them. A lot of times, people think my life is sort of bleak. I’ve buried a lot of folks killed because of gang violence, and I suppose if it was only that, it would be bleak. But [my work] is mainly watching people see the truth of who they are. And it just doesn’t get better than that.

Awe can only be maintained if you stay anchored in the present moment. Because joy is only going to be right there, it’s not going to be anywhere else. You can lament what happened yesterday and be terrified about what will happen tomorrow, but only joy happens in the present moment. [Buddhist monk] Pema Chödrön talks about [how] you have to constantly maintain joyfulness. Recognize that joy has a maintenance contract, be very mindful of attention and be anchored in the present moment.

How do you handle criticism?

Blame and praise are equally seductive. The trick is not to cling to any of it and not to take things personally. Even when people are hoisting you up on their shoulders and waving palm fronds, you kind of touch it, you are curious about it, and then you let it go as quickly as you can.

Do that with adulation as much as with criticism or blame. Because there’s the sting of the blame [and] you can cling to it and it turns into resentment and it hardens and gets shellacked and then it’s hardened again. So, you want to always have a light grasp on that kind of stuff.

What do you do to restore yourself?

People always ask me that. I think the presumption is that I’m depleted. I don’t really believe in depletion. I don’t believe that somehow you show up at work at 8 and your battery is charged and then you get to 5 and your gas tank is empty. That just means you’re doing it wrong.

You know how it is with your computer? It’s plugged in and the battery is full. But if you unplug it and you live on the battery, you watch it start to get depleted until you’re staring [at the] red on the battery sign. [Then] I think one was doing that wrong. If the task is to save people, you’re going to be depleted. But if the task is to savor people, then you’re completely plugged in all the time, depletion is not part of your vocabulary.

If you’re trying to turn the light switch on for people, you will burn out. But if your task is shining the flashlight on the light switch for people, you’re utterly reliant on whether that person follows that beam of light or not and turns the light switch on. No amount of me wanting that guy to turn the light switch on is the same as that guy wanting to do it for himself. Burnout comes from not staying in the present moment and thinking that your job description is save lives. I think saving lives is for the Coast Guard. I don’t believe in it.

All I know is I believe in saving my own life, and that sounds selfish, but I think that’s the way it's supposed to be. You show up, you stand at the margins, you’re with the poor, the easily despised, the readily left out. You stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. You stand with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. When you’re doing that, your life is just rich.

When you feel unkind, how do you reconnect with kindness?

Part of it is breathing and staying in the moment. If I’m listening to a homie, I have some mantras - “Now. Here. This.” - to stay anchored with this person. Or I’ll tell myself, "Stay listening." Or, "Be fearless for me," kind of asking God to accompany me in a particular way.

Kindness is the only thing there is, and how you stay close to your own awakened, tender heart. Otherwise you want to win the argument. That happens to me all the time with, say, a recalcitrant homie who’s refusing to go to rehab or is screaming at me for one thing or another.

You forget that behavior is a language. The guy’s speaking a language to you. The behavior’s not the problem, it’s trying to figure out what language this violence is speaking. What language is this screaming homie speaking, what place of pain? And then you’re always hoping that the answer to every question is compassion.

What’s the best kept secret of being an adult?

A kind of perspective. Again, clinging is always the source of our suffering. The opposite of clinging is not letting go, it’s cherishing. You can’t cherish unless you’ve relinquished your hold on things. That’s something that comes with becoming an adult, I suppose.

The highest form of spiritual maturity is tenderness. Otherwise love stays in the air or the ether or in your head or in your heart; what good does it do there? The only way it can become transformational is when it becomes tenderness. That's the connective tissue, that’s when you're actually being joined and joining to another human being. That’s when kinship happens is through tenderness. Just as joy comes with the maintenance contract, so does tenderness.

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