Gregory Boyle, SJ "The Unshakeable Goodness of God" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich,spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen. Someone whose own writing is an important, valued resource to spiritual seekers. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to reach our spiritually hungry world with Henri’s writings, his encouragement, and of course, his reminder that each of us is a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. Father Greg Boyle is a Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries in 1986.
Homeboy Industries is the largest and most successful gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. Every year, over 10,000 former gang members from across Los Angeles come through Homeboy Industries’ doors in an effort to make a positive change. Father Greg has written some wonderful books: Tattoos on the Heart; The Power of Boundless Compassion; Barking to the Choir; The Power of Radical Kinship; The Whole Language; The Power of Extravagant Tenderness. The latest book that I’ve been reading is Forgive Everyone Everything. It beautifully combines the artwork of Fabian Debora with stories from Greg’s work with various people that land on his doorstep, and his life at Homeboy Industries.
Father Greg, it is such a joy to have you with us today. Welcome.
Greg Boyle: Thank you. I’m honored to be with you.
Karen Pascal: Greg, you have been such a champion for change, with a heart that chooses to love over judgment. I have always felt you’re a kindred spirit to Henri Nouwen. Have his books been valuable in your spiritual journey?
Greg Boyle: Oh my gosh. I’m 50 years a Jesuit this year, and I remember when I first read The Wounded Healer andall, and actually he was my professor for a semester at Harvard Divinity.
Karen Pascal: Oh, I didn’t realize that. That’s really interesting.
Greg Boyle: Yeah. He and Parker Palmer taught a course together on ministry. And he was only there that one semester, and I was lucky enough to be in his class.
Karen Pascal: Oh, that’s excellent. You know, Greg, I know that you grew up in Los Angeles, and one of the things that I realized is that something quite transformative happened to you. How did you go from, maybe in a way, not seeing the poor and the needs of what was happening in your city, to being so incredibly up–to–your–earlobes involved in it? What happened? How did that happen?
Greg Boyle: Well, I don’t know. I mean, again, I was educated by the Jesuits, so I became a Jesuit. And all along the way, from working in soup kitchens and being a hospice grief counselor, to running a service project at a high school and then going to Bolivia, which kind of turned me inside out. Actually, Henri, when he wrote the book Gracias, he had spent some time in the same Maryknoll language school there as I did. He was there some years before me, I think. And so, and then that kind of turned me inside out, and I felt sort of evangelized by the poor.
So, you just kind of evolve your way, you back your way into things. You don’t exactly plot out some kind of course, you know, and it’s the next thing. So, I was ordained in ’84, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I ended up, I said, “Well, I want to solidify my Spanish.” And then, it kind of just changed me forever.
Karen Pascal: I’ve loved your books and I’ve actually come across recordings, and I’ve loved your storytelling. Your books are packed with good stories, and in them, there is a tenderness. It’s almost like you’re introducing not just your homies, the people that are coming through Homeboy Industries, but actually you’re introducing us all to the tenderness of God’s heart, to the bigness. That’s what I always feel when I’m reading something by you. I realize that I’m being introduced to a God that is bigger and kinder and gentler, and I’m so grateful to meet him in those words.
Greg Boyle: Well, the gang members have taught me everything of value. And so, you discover, you find the heart of God and you find how God loves and who God loves. And then it just opens up this door where you want to be, strive to be as spacious and accepting as the God we have. And so, like the gospel today says, “How do you grow rich in the things that matter to God?” And these are the things that matter: inclusion and nonviolence and unconditional lovingkindness and compassionate acceptance.
And so, you try to roll up your sleeves, and you try to love as God loves, you know? And anyway, that’s where the joy is. And just loving, being loving, it’s hard to do. And that’s for sure.
Karen Pascal: I feel like you take us on that journey through the stories you tell, through the stories of people’s lives. And I find that it constantly softens my heart, just listening to those stories. But I’m curious, because you know, I’m going to be honest. I look at it and I go, “If I was in in gang territory, I’d be afraid.” And there seems to be a fearlessness in you. Where does that come from? Tell me about that.
Greg Boyle: Well, so in the early days, I don’t know why, I just felt kind of a comfort and it was kind of my community. It was where I lived. And so, to walk in the housing projects, which were two contiguous housing projects that had eight gangs at war with each other, it took time. But, as soon as you try to engage in what I would call relational wholeness, where you listen to people and you try to embody no–matter–whatness with them, well, all that stuff just really issues in a different kind of sense of security and safety. So, I never really felt in danger, you know?
But in the end, these things are choices. Joy and fearlessness are things you choose. They’re not things that fall out of the sky and kind of land in your lap. And then you say, “Oh, okay, today I feel fearless.”It’s really about choosing fearlessness. But you have to keep choosing it with every breath you take. And sometimes you pray, “Be fearless for me, because this is a hard moment.” And then you’re sustained. So, I believe in the God who protects me from nothing but sustains me in everything. So, sometimes you have to kind of request it, and it’s given.
Karen Pascal: I know you through your books, so I’ll probably make lots of reference to that. But I would say that even as you’re telling stories about offering love and acceptance and new beginnings to people that desperately need them, I find you’re also calling believers into a different kind of a God, a bigger, more generous, a God that delights in seeing us. And I find that such a healthy, healthy reminder.
Greg Boyle: Well, I think we get so stuck in this personified deity of our childhood, you know? And then you kind of start to see the wide–open spaces of the God we actually have. I was thinking, you know, the God who indicts is not the God we have; the God we actually have invites. So, you try to find the invitation, you know? I was hearing a poet the other day talk about God as beauty, and that the word “beauty” comes from the word “calling.” And so, it’s like an invitation. So, it’s never wagging God’s finger or indicting us for something that we’ve done, but it’s always “find the invitation,” you know?
And sometimes you have to sift quite a bit through scripture and through whatever we’re hearing. And you go, well, where’s the invitation of the God we actually have, which will always be spacious and expansive and calling us, inviting us to greater love. And that’s where the joy is, you know?
So, I was thinking the other day about Willie Sutton, who spent like half his life in prison, like 30 years. Somebody famously said, “Why do you rob banks?” And he says, “It’s where the money is.” And it’s the same kind of principle. It’s like, “Why do you do what you’re doing?” Well, the hope is, the answer is,“It’s where the joy is.” And so, the joy is where you inhabit your true self and loving, and that’s where you want to be always. You want to be in that place of a love that never stops loving.
Karen Pascal: You’ve got a phrase, I think, in Forgive Everyone Everything, in one of the chapters. The meditation says:“Here’s the good news. The God we most deeply want is the God we actually have.” It’s a great quote. I think that’s what I kind of find on the pages of what I read, is that you keep saying this is the God that really does love you. He’s not judging you; he’s wanting you. He’s courting you. He’s coming after you.
Greg Boyle: Because we settle for a partial God when we should hold out for the God we actually have. But we get caught in these old, tired ways of thinking, like, “Did that action please God?” Or, “Is God displeased?”And you just go, “Well, gosh, I don’t know.” God is too busy loving us to have any time to be disappointed or displeased. And it’s hard to fathom, although parents and grandparents have this kind of sense of loving their kids, that’s certainly comparable.
But somehow, we think that God is this other kind of being, and that’s probably the problem, in assigning a sense of being to God, because we’re human beings and we’re always going to project onto God what we think. And it’s too bad, because it’s kept us kind of constricted, when God is trying to kind of always break open the hearts and open the way to be. And it’s hard to do.
Karen Pascal: You have a sweet expression in the book: “living in love’s energy.” And there’s a lovely freedom in it, as opposed to a sense of a God judging every move you make, and somehow, you’re failing God. I think,too, one of the things I particularly appreciated is your distinction between guilt and shame, and how that can really be something that nags away at us.
Greg Boyle: Well, we’re always trying to, it’s the principal suffering of the poor throughout history and throughout scripture. And so, part of the task is to dismantle the messages of shame and disgrace. And you want to replace them, not with some Pollyanna invention, but you want to replace them with the truth, you know? And which is why the starting place around here at Homeboy, is people are unshakably good and we belong to each other. So, if those are your two non-negotiables, then take it from there. Then you can start to really accompany people, and we can walk each other home.
But it’s not a sifting of who’s good and who’s bad. It doesn’t have anything to do with that. It has to do with everybody is this light, and how do we help each other inhabit their true selves and loving. It’s not about becoming a better person, because you couldn’t be one bit better, but you could know that truth more deeply.
And the more you know it, the more you live it. And again, cherishing people is not hard, but remembering to cherish people – that’s difficult. And so, we’re always kind of reminding ourselves to remember. So, in recovery, they’ll say “one day at a time.” And I always think that’s way too long, you know? It’s really with every breath you take, you cherish, and with every breath, you want to be able to, you want that to be your intentionality as you proceed, and put one foot in front of the next. Nothing is once and for all. You really don’t sit in the morning and say, “I’m deciding to be loving and there we are,”you know? It doesn’t really work that way.
Karen Pascal: I love the phrase you used, you used it a great deal: kinship. It seems like something that in a way you’ve understood. And maybe just unwrap that a little bit for us.
Greg Boyle: You know, I think part of the thing is belonging is about creating kinship, connection where there is no daylight that separates us. And that’s what you hope for. You want to be able to bridge anything, any kind of distance. And so, belonging creates kinship, but it also undoes aloneness, and undoing aloneness is part of the task around here. It’s like, how do you help coax people out of their own isolation? And so,community is kind of the answer, you know?
I was on a Zoom the other day with a woman who was asking me questions, and she works for thehomeless in West Virginia. And she said something I’ve never heard before. She said, “People don’t become homeless because they run out of money. They become homeless because they run out of relationships.”
And I thought, you know, that’s the truth. Somehow, you want to be able to ensure that people don’t run out of relationships. And so, the answer is community first. That’s what will help us all to enter intocommunion, which is . . . God’s dream come true is kinship, “that you may be one.” And so, you’re trying to foster a culture that creates the community of beloved belonging, where nobody feels isolated or left out. And that’s just kind of a key thing around here. It’s hard to do, because you have to pay attention a lot. But it’s certainly worth the effort.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting when you say that you have to pay attention a lot. It’s one of the things I’m struck with, in reading your books. They’re full of stories of people just kind of shouting out or showing up, longing for your attention, and that you have time and you build relationships that have length to them. Not just a moment, but you know, that ongoing history of relationship. Kinship is not going away from somebody. It’s staying there in the midst of that, and valuing it, I think.
Greg Boyle: Yeah. And it’s messy all along the way, you know, and you bump into each other and people get their nose out of joint, you know? And you get annoyed and you can’t help yourself sometimes, but to be taken to that place where you don’t want to be taken. I just had a homie in here saying that, you know, he kind of blew up with somebody and he said, “I was out of character.” And it was painful for him, you know? Maybe that wasn’t painful for him five years ago, but it’s painful to him now.
And, you know, so this is a good thing. This is progress. We all bump into each other. You kick the dog, but it’s not the dog’s fault. Something’s going on. So, you want know what’s going on, what’s underneath this.
And so, it’s kind of important for people to be attentive to that. And it’s two steps forward, five steps backwards. That’s okay. You just want to be patient with yourself. But I was happy that he could say that to me, because he was embarrassed. And that’s okay.
And we hugged each other as he left, and it was like, it’s not about doing better the next time. It’s just trying to get underneath, find the thorn underneath, as the homies always say around here. It’s an exploration to say, “Well, where did that come from? What led me to be taken to a place that I haven’t been taken to for a while?” And so, you feel the pain, you feel the sting of it, and then you try to learn as much as you can.
Karen Pascal: Greg, I was amazed to see that there are – you know, I think of Homeboy Industries being just there in Los Angeles, but you’ve been multiplied many times. There are many people that have come and said, “This is the way to do it.” And I think there’s over 300, is that correct? All over the world.
Greg Boyle: Yeah. So, what we have is we have the Global Homeboy Network. So, we have programs – 300 in the country and 50 outside the country – that are loosely modeled on Homeboy. So, initially they were all either dealing with gangs or returning citizens. Now, it’s kind of a methodology that people use all over the country and the world, where it’s, how do you address vexing, complex dilemmas, like the unhoused and mental health issues and all those kinds of things. So, we call it the Global Homeboy Network. So,we gather every summer for three days – all our partners, the ones who can come from all over – and wekind of share best practices and that kind of thing.
Karen Pascal: Maybe just tell our audience a little bit. I’m going to encourage them, obviously, to go to your website, and I can’t imagine that they haven’t heard of you, but if they haven’t, I will encourage them to do that. Tell them a little bit about some of the, I don’t whether call them services, that you do. One of the things was, it just really started with offering employment to people that weren’t employed, which I thought was a good beginning. Tell us a little bit about what Homeboy Industries offers.
Greg Boyle: So, we’ve evolved over the years, since 1988. We were a job–placement program, and then we couldn’t find enough felony–friendly employers. So, we started our own kinds of little adventures, you know – and maintenance crew, landscaping crew, different things. And so, now we have 11 social enterprises:bakeries, restaurants, that kind of thing. And then we have tattoo removal, we have therapy, we have classes, and the centerpiece is our 18–month training program, where folks come in and it’s really about healing. And so, people do the work and they excavate their wounds and they learn how to transform their pain so they don’t have to transmit it anymore. So, that kind of thing. And some 10,000 folks a year wander through our doors, you know, wanting to reimagine their lives. And so, that’s the kind of the principle.
Karen Pascal: I guess I have to say this: When I come to your books, I find Jesus. I find a God who’s tender and kind. In a sense, I don’t always find that everywhere, but I think it’s what has undone me as I read and as I want to hand these out to others. Tell me about the one who can’t take his eyes off of you.
Greg Boyle: Well, yeah. I can’t remember who, Teresa of Avila, it comes from her, you know, “Behold the one beholding you and smiling.”
And it comes from a story of a friend of mine, a Jesuit who was taking care of his father. And then, as he was putting him to bed – he was in his nineties and he was very frail and dying – the son would read him to sleep like the father used to do to him when he was a boy. And the father would just stare at his kid and smile. And my Jesuit friend Bill would say, “Go to sleep. I’m tired.” And he would pretend to go to sleep, but then he couldn’t help himself.
And he said, “Billy, I just want to stare at you.” And it was like he couldn’t take his eyes off his kid. And, you know, that’s exactly the kind of God we have. And we don’t believe it. And we’ve never believed it, but that’s the God we should hold out for, because that’s the God we actually have. And it’s liberating to know that’s the truth.
My friend Mirabai Starr says, “Once you know the God of love, you fire all the other gods.” And that’s the adult task when it comes to God. It’s about firing all the other gods. And that’s what you hope for.
Karen Pascal: I will encourage everyone to be reading what we’ve been sharing a little bit from, because I really think it’s important. I really think it’s rich food for the soul, rich food that will make you strong in the inner man. And I’ve always felt that what Henri captured was, he got that he was beloved. He was a person that found that hard to receive. So, when it finally gets through to you that God loves you, he wanted to pass it on to everybody as well. A beloved child of God.
Greg Boyle: That’s right.
Karen Pascal: Do you recall anything that you took from that time of being in those classes? What a lucky man to be sitting in on Parker Palmer and Henri Nouwen!
Greg Boyle: Well, you know, I do remember this thing I always quote. It was a class on ministry, and I remember there was a young woman who at one point just said, “Well, what is ministry?” And Henri’s trying to kind of formulate, and then he looked at the woman and he said, “Can you receive people?”
And that’s always stayed with me, because we always think it’s about doing or saving or rescuing or outcomes or being effective, but I’ve never forgotten that. And that was 40 years ago. And it was, like, can you receive people? And that’s what you hope for. Can you be reached by people? Can you allow your heart to be altered? So, it turns ministry on its head. It’s not about performance. It’s about just gently receiving people. And then people start to inhabit the truth of who they are, and they feel quickened to love in the same way, you know, so, to love themselves and others in the same way.
Karen Pascal: Well, I’m going to say that I would encourage everyone to be reading these books, because it does tell the story of receiving very interesting, very, very special people. You tell the stories well; you’re a good storyteller. It makes me laugh. And there’s nothing more disarming than honesty when you’re not putting up the false self, but you’re just being the real self, walking your way through messes that we create and that others create. And I think you do that very well, Greg. Very well.
Greg Boyle: Well, thank you.
Karen Pascal: Thanks so much for being with us today. I’m really grateful. I really am.
Greg Boyle: And thank you for honoring Henri’s memory.
Karen Pascal: That’s a privilege for me. That’s a great privilege. Here I am being able to, our mission is to share with others the reality that they’re beloved. Because when Henri found that out, it was the thing most worthwhile to share with everyone else. But I want to thank you because you’ve introduced me – and you continue to introduce people through your books and through your talks – to a big and a generous God who loves extravagantly, and you’re a witness to that transforming power of tenderness. Father Greg Boyle, I thank you for being with us today.
Greg Boyle: Thank you.
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. What an honor for me to spend time with one of my heroes, Father Greg Boyle. He’s written the book, Forgive Everyone Everything. If our discussion today or if the very title speaks to you, I encourage you to get Greg’s book and let his wisdom and compassion inspire you.
For more resources related to today’s conversation, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’ll find links to anything mentioned today, as well as book suggestions. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we’d be so grateful if you would take time to give us a review or a thumbs–up or pass this onto your friends and companions on the faith journey.
Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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