Hundreds of people gathered in Bellarmine a few weeks ago to hear testimony and inspiring stories of love and healing from Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention program in the country and operates in the heart of LA. After listening to Fr. Boyle’s stories or reading his book Tattoos on the Heart, it is easy to see that Homeboy is more than just a gang intervention and re-entry program, it is home and family for so many.
“I’ve been having a lot of one-on-ones with God lately…and you know what’s incredible, the guy shows up…why would He do that after all that I’ve done.”
Out of all the stories of unconditional love and “no matter whatness” that Fr. Boyle shared, this one spoke to me in a special way because of the honesty and vulnerability of the moment. I have definitely had times in my life when I felt like God or others shouldn’t “show up” – that I simply didn’t deserve it or wasn’t good enough for it. We have all probably had these moments. Whatever the reasons were, or whatever they might be in the future, I think these are times in our lives filled with opportunities for grace and growth, if we only find community that can return us to ourselves and walk with us as we rediscover how awesome and amazing we are.
The true work that Homeboy Industries does, as Father Boyle says, is to bring everyone into the circle of kinship so that no one is standing outside of it and so that there is no longer a suspicion that some people’s lives matter more than others. Our culture and the society we live in doesn’t send this message, however. Day to day, we are bombarded by the message that we need this or that to be good enough or to be the best: that test grade, this tiny waistline, this color skin, that economic background. It is no wonder that so many of us feel inadequate when we look at ourselves, even when we are amazed and in awe of how awesome the people in our lives are.
As a student in the Masters of Occupational Therapy program, I have come to find real meaning in the philosophy and roots of the profession, even as I question if it is the right profession for me. I stay because I believe in walking with others as they participate in what is meaningful to them and as they discover their self-worth and abilities despite their disabilities. I think the same philosophy is important in re-entry work and gang intervention – walking with people as they find their self-worth and significance. Employment is important and pays the bills (hopefully), but if one doesn’t believe they deserve that job or can do it well, what keeps them there when the alternative of selling drugs is what they grew up around? Programs that assist with life skills and sobriety are important, but what happens when an unexpected and stressful life events occurs, such as a loved one getting sick?
For the past year I have been part of the Brueggeman Fellowship, researching the potential of occupational therapy to reduce recidivism and assist people (women specifically) in successful re-entry. As I have done research, I have been shocked by the way that our prison system dehumanizes people for decades of their lives, teaching them that they aren’t as worthy as others – that they must be separated from society, humiliated in strip searches and told what they are to do virtually every hour of the day. Then, when they finally are released, they cannot find employment due to having a record. Many cannot vote or live in public housing and are stigmatized for leaving their families or having an addiction yet are expected by society to be “rehabilitated” and provide for themselves and their families — to be productive members of society.
I spent 6 weeks this summer in a poor town in England called Stoke-on-Trent. Like many economically disadvantaged places, Stoke has a drug and alcohol problem. Many of its residents battle with addiction, mental illness and domestic violence. I worked at a women’s re-entry center and helped teach an accredited course as well as work with the arts and crafts group. I sat in a lot of meetings and had a chance to talk with many of the women about their stories. One women in particular told me about how her life circumstances, as well as being incarcerated, led her to feeling like she wasn’t deserving of much of anything. She didn’t have hope for her future. Then, she started painting and saw that she could produce works of art that people wanted to look at, even buy. She formed relationships with the other women in the art class and found herself worthy of friendship. She found the confidence to begin taking classes at the local college and now can help her grandsons with their math homework, something she wouldn’t have even tried years ago. Regardless of her past, she finally found herself worthy.
Finding ourselves and each other worthy of unconditional love is something we can put into practice each day. It is not something unique to people who have been involved in gangs or those who have been incarcerated, it is something we all need, a common bond we all share. It’s hard, but we can help open each other’s eyes to the incredible and worthy people that we all are. As Father Boyle said, “love is always the answer, community is the context and tenderness is the method.”
Rachel Snodgrass is a graduate intern in the CFJ. She is in the Occupational Therapy graduate program. Raised in Southwestern Ohio, this year, she has boldly lived within a clear view of that other university in town, where blue is shunned and Muskies is a dirty word. Ask her about what it is like to live across that line, but really ask her about all she is passionate about. You just might find your passions ignited too.