In response to a question about his organization's economic problems, Fr. Greg was at first reluctant to broach the topic. Last year, the group was in crisis and Fr. Greg was afraid he might have to furlough some of his 427 employees. The workers, many of whom are former gang members, produce silk-screened casual wear and other merchandise, run a bakery and a café/catering operation. They also run a cleaning and landscaping business. The organization's motto is: "Nothing stops a bullet like a job".
Help came in the form of a $340,000 gang reduction contract approved in August by the LA City Council. An even more important break came in October when Ralphs Grocery agreed to carry Homegirl Café salsas in their deli section. According to Fr. Greg, there is hope that this deal might expand to other Homegirl Café and Catering products.
In addition to its commercial enterprises, Homeboy Industries provides the usual range of educational, social work, counseling and legal services and something more unusual but extremely popular: the Ya 'Stuvo Tattoo Removal Service. Using two laser tattoo removal machines that the organization has purchased, volunteer medical personnel help gang members remove the signs of their former life so that they can more easily find employment and reintegrate into society. According to Fr. Greg, around 4,000 tattoo removals were performed last year and the group has a waiting list of more than one thousand former gang members wanting this service. Services are provided according to the needs identified by the gang members. Once its economic crisis is over, the group hopes to move into additional areas such as transitional housing and day care.
Tattoos on the Heart tells the stories of some of Homeboy Industries' clients. They are stories that Fr. Greg has told over and over again in the 25 detention centers in which he has celebrated Mass, as well as to community groups. The book is a fundraising project but it is also a response to homeys who wanted to be able to come back to Fr. Greg's stories for inspiration (or caution).
The book reflects Fr. Greg's philosophy that without a sense of kinship there can be no justice. He calls us to imagine a circle of compassion with no one standing outside it, calls us to stand at the margins with the "easily despised and readily rejected". He calls us to "stand in awe at what the poor have to carry" rather than in judgement of them. In the end, Fr. Greg calls each of us to help him build a world where we are conscious that we "belong to each other", in the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
We are not there yet. In 1988, Fr. Greg buried his first victim of gang violence, three months ago he presided at the funeral of the 168th one. God willing, if we can help Fr. Greg and the homeys keep Homeboy Industries going, we will come to the day when there will be no more gang-related deaths.
For those who are thinking of making a donation to Homeboy Industries, here is the group's latest 990. As you will be able to see, this is NOT an nonprofit organization that pays outrageous executive salaries. The three highest paid executives all made less than $75,000 in 2008, with Fr. Greg as CEO in fact making less than the other two officers. Let's give these folks a hand, because unlike all the unworthy recipients of public charity that our tax dollars bailed out last year, Homeboy Industries really IS "too big to fail".
Photos: Father Greg Boyle reads from and signs his book; Homeboy Industries workers produce silk-screened merchandise and salsa; Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa samples some Homegirl Café salsa.