A step up from Pat O’Brien

Now here’s a funny thing. The opening words of Fresh Air last night made my heart sink within me.

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Father Greg Boyle, has worked with former gang members in LA for over 30 years.

Oh no no no no, thought I. Not a Catholic priest; nope nope nope. But I gave it a minute anyway, just in case, and…was surprised. He seems

  • like a mensch and
  • not at all priesty

I’ll quote some of it but if you’re at all interested I recommend listening, to get the not-priesty quality of his voice and way of talking.

GROSS: With the help of cellphone videos and dashboard videos, Americans have seen with their own eyes how some police officers assault or kill black men. And is that something that gang members you’ve worked with – ex-offenders that you’ve worked with have complained about? And if so, have you worked with officers – with police officers and spoken to them about your concerns?

BOYLE: Well, for the first time in 30 years, you know, we’ve had police officers in training at the police academy. They’re brought over to Homeboy Industries to kind of spend the day. And it’s a softening of, who are these people? And it helps, you know, to have gang members stand up in front of a roomful of police officers who are in training and allow them in – you know, invite them to the difficulties of their own growing up and what they had to endure. And if you can lead them to a place of awe, which is a great leveler – and then pretty soon they stand in awe at what these folks have had to carry rather than in judgment at how they’ve carried it. So it’s softened the demonizing.

GROSS: You describe a meeting you had, like, years ago with a police officer. And you expressed your concerns. And he told you – the police officer told you that the police strategy is to make life as miserable as possible for the gang members. And your response was life is already miserable for them. So where did that leave you in your conversation with him? Do you remember?

BOYLE: Well, then it became let’s shoot the messenger. So then there was this really great outpouring of hostility towards me from the local Los Angeles Police Department. I was the fraternizer with the enemy. I was, you know – I co-signed on bad behavior – and then wild things, like, I held their guns and their drugs – crazy stuff.

But this was – this is ancient history. This was when they would take kids to the factories and beat them down for purposes of interrogation or intimidation. And I was naive because I grew up on the other side of town in LA. Because when the cops arrived, they – you were relieved. They got the cat out of a tree, you know? So here I would go to the captain – I’d say, I think you’d want to know that this is going on. And so then pretty soon, it turned. It was – I knew not to go to the cops and tell them this because it just exacerbated their hostility towards me.

GROSS: But you think things are different now?

BOYLE: But that’s – oh, way different now – just absolutely way different. Now, there isn’t a gang member in LA County who doesn’t have a bad story to tell, not one – and multiple ones at that about how, you know, they were mistreated or picked up and dropped off in enemy territory. They all can reach back and have those stories. But now, again, it’s part of the fabric of how policing happens, that they go out of their way not to do this stuff now, at least in LA. And that’s progress because it was quite bad 30 years ago.

Then they talked about his chronic leukemia and about death. He says it’s not high on his list of things he worries about and she asks why not.

BOYLE: Yeah, I think the only answer to that is I’m probably weird.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

BOYLE: But I think part of it, too, is that you have to put – a kid who I buried used to say right after his brother died in his arms – also gunned down. And he was gunned down two years after that. He said death is a punk. And I said, yeah, you know, you’re right. And so I think a lot of it has to do – people are kind of stunned that that none of us will get out of this alive. And that kind of startles me. I want to say, where you been, you know? And it’s kind of an indicator of, you know, the work that everybody has to do is no one gets out of this life. So once you know that then, all of a sudden, death as a punk.

You know, the Dalai Lama – somebody asked him about his own personal death. And he just laughed. And he said, change of clothing. And yeah, I’ll have what he’s having, you know, because I think that’s what it is. So the minute you’re freed from not just the notion of death but you’re freed from the fear of it – and I know that cancer and death is not the worst thing that could ever happen to somebody. And once you know that, then you can compile the lists – you know? – the list of fates worse than death and the things more powerful than death.

I find it interesting that he didn’t say a word about immortality. Maybe “change of clothing” is, but then again maybe it isn’t – it certainly isn’t the Vatican-approved variety.

Same with prayer.

GROSS: What was your understanding of prayer when you were in parochial school compared to what your understanding of prayer is now?

BOYLE: Well, you know, in those days, it was rote, and it was petitionary. And it was – I know I didn’t study for the math test, but please let me pass it, you know, craziness, which led people to go, yeah, he didn’t – I didn’t pass the math test – so much for prayer. So I mean, again, it was third grade. And – but I had experiences when I was in high school where it was profound and unitive and really feeling held and loved and worthy.

GROSS: Is prayer for you a quiet recitation, you know, of prewritten prayer or moments of reflection that have no text attached to it?

BOYLE: Yeah. I don’t have any text. I have mantras all the time. But I try to meditate twice a day and in the morning and then if I can do it during the afternoon or when I steal away some time for lunch. It’s…

GROSS: Yeah, mantra is a Buddhist concept and not (laughter) a Jesuit one…

BOYLE: Don’t tell anybody (laughter).

GROSS: Buddhism comes up a lot in your book. So you obviously see some connections between, you know, the Jesuit approach that you follow and Buddhism.

BOYLE: Yeah, definitely I do. You know, I think it’s very helpful to my own kind of centering prayer. And again, my mantra at the moment is, resting in you, resting in me. And I kind of breathe it in, and I breathe it out. Actually a homie taught me that one.

GROSS: Really?

BOYLE: Yeah. I have a homie named Sergio (ph) who is kind of – I call my spiritual director. And he goes to work at some ungodly hour, at 4. He’s been in recovery for, like, nine years. And he’s my hero. I call him my spiritual director. And every morning, sometimes in real time, but, you know – because I get up at 3:30 in the morning. I get up really early. And so he’ll email me. And he’ll kind of – this is what I’m thinking, and this is what happened to me in prayer. And then I tell him what happened to me. And it’s a profoundly rich thing.

But I look back at him, and you know, he was a meth addict and a drug dealer and a gang member. And now he’s like a spiritual guide to me. But anyway, so we were talking about this kind of breathing in and breathing out and resting in you, resting in me. And so that’s my current one thanks to him.

It’s less repellent than the usual kind, I think.

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