The Rev. Greg Boyle is rightfully famous for being the founder of the world’s largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program, Homeboy Industries. In an appearance at Newman University in Wichita in 2013, he shared a texted conversation between once bitter rival gang members known as “Youngster” and “Puppet.”
Puppet, Boyle said, texted Youngster joking that he’d been arrested for being Los Angeles’ ugliest gang member and that Youngster needed to come down to the police station, “to show them that they got the wrong guy.”
The anecdote drew a laugh, but the violence Boyle’s program battled daily claimed nearly 200 of the homies his ministry shepherded, and it would claim one of the lives in that conversation.
Boyle said something seldom shared in our civic discourse: Our lack of kinship – the judging, the excluding and especially the withholding of badly needed care – is simply another form of violence occupying its own space on the violence continuum.
In that respect, no push to stop gun violence can succeed without addressing the full circle, the full spectrum of violence.
Our “civil society” resembles gang life much more than we’d care to admit, and Boyle, an author, humanitarian and Jesuit priest, said gang members taught him much. Violence doesn’t just explode. Like fire, it has ingredients. Violence, in his description, is a response.
Gangs taught him, for example, that “gang violence” actually is about health-care access, not crime. He’s never met a gangster who wasn’t depressed, traumatized or both. Most needed treatment, not the mass incarceration they received.
Society’s decision not to extend such care to people in need just reinforced his commitment to what he had learned.
Boyle said we should be creating kinship circles that stand in awe of how people carry their burdens rather than standing in judgment. Circles that include the “disposable,” allowing us to end the ways we discard people.
We call gang culture ugly, but maybe Puppet was right. Maybe we’re calling the wrong people ugly.
That’s why Boyle forced enemies such as Youngster and Puppet to work together.
Homeboy Industries created jobs as alternatives to gang life. The two rivals initially said, “I’ll work with him, but I won’t talk to him,” but since demonizing people you see daily is difficult, the relationship eventually warmed.
One night, a rival gang jumped Puppet, kicking him in the head long after he’d fallen motionless.
Boyle had seen many horrors but none quite like Puppet lying in a hospital bed with his head monstrously swollen. He lingered on life support for 48 hours. His circle said their goodbyes.
Youngster, now in that circle, called Boyle before Puppet died offering help, even his blood. Silence punctuated the call.
“He was my friend,” Boyle recalled Youngster saying.
You might balk at comparisons of gang violence and our all-too-frequent mass shootings, but America is constantly bombarded by furious, acrimonious debates over firearms in which rivals lay claim to rhetorical and political territory while innocent people get caught in the middle.
Consider also that gun deaths – be they an all-but-unnoticed suicide or a spasm of killing that garners days of headlines – often involve those, like Boyle’s gang members, suffering from depression, trauma or both. People who exist outside the “circle of worth,” to use Boyle’s words.
Our pursuit of safety by exclusion only acts as an accelerant. An apropos African proverb says: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”
As the chill of autumn came to Kansas, a spate of shootings and threats – in Louisville, Kentucky; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Thousand Oaks, California, and bombs sent to politicians and journalists – elevated the importance of Boyle’s prayer for inclusion.
Violence is its own circle. It begins in one form and morphs into another, but it’s violence nonetheless.
So, stopping gun violence has to be more than gun bans and background checks. We have to address it at every point in the continuum, which means stopping economic violence. Stopping political violence. Stopping injustice.
Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, author and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has said that the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. It’s justice.
Given that, we have to stop denying to people what we know they need to survive and recognize that such denials are every bit as mean and as vicious as the back-alley beatdown that claimed Puppet’s life.
Boyle, in his speech, quoted Mother Teresa: “We’ve just forgotten that we belong to each other.”
We have, and we’ll never stem the violence in our society until we start acting like it.