Society now has a better understanding of the need to reach out to gangs and gang members, said Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, who has ministered to gang youth in Los Angeles for decades.
"I don't think we'd ever go back to that period where so many people have demonized gang members so thoroughly. ... We're kind of not there anymore. I think people understand outreach like that," Father Boyle said Sept. 9 to an audience at Jesuit-run Regis University in Denver.
Although he has noticed this change in views on gangs, Father Boyle said people are more divided today and an idea of "othering" has taken place -- where individuals or groups of people treat others as different from themselves.
However, he said, young people shouldn't give up hope as there is still good to find in the world.
Father Boyle formally established Homeboy Industries in 1992 to improve the lives of former gang members. The organization has evolved into the largest gang intervention, rehab and reentry program in the world.
From 1986 to 1992, Father Boyle served as pastor of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, then the poorest Catholic parish in Los Angeles, which also had the highest concentration of gang activity in the city.
He and members of the parish and the wider community adopted what was a radical approach at the time: treating gang members as human beings. What they started in 1988 would eventually become Homeboy Industries.
The priest often brings some former gang members, now employees of Homeboy Industries -- whom he fondly calls "homies" -- to speak at his events. He believes there is a greater impact when an audience hears their stories directly from them.
Before his talk, two of those homies shared their heartfelt stories of redemption and restoration, crediting Father Boyle for the courageous and loving work he continues.
The Jesuit priest challenged people to not stop helping those on the margins, but rather than going to these places with a "fix and rescue" mentality, he said, people should focus their efforts on how changes can be brought about by the community itself.
"So, you want to invite people to point the way. What are we aiming for? What kind of sense of connection and kinship and exquisite mutuality? They'll feel good that you're inviting them to something," Father Boyle said.
"Exquisite mutuality," as Homeboy defines it, is about sharing suffering and joy with others.
He added if people are hearing criticism about what's wrong all the time, then most will not want the help.
"If you're just pointing stuff out, I'm not interested (in) giving a talk that just points things out," the priest said.
Regis partnered with the Denver nonprofit Fully Liberated Youth to bring Father Boyle back to the campus where he had given the 2017 commencement address.
Fully Liberated Youth, or FLY, aims in a holistic fashion to provide resources and empower young people who are experiencing oppression, trauma or gang involvement, so they can continue becoming "the liberated individuals" the community needs.
FLY co-founders Natalie Baddour and Preston Adams said they were excited to partner with Father Boyle, Homeboy Industries and Regis to help raise awareness about the work they are doing in the Mile High City.
"What I found was the kids saved us," Adams said. "The kids reached us; the kids rescued us. My young people have saved my life. And they've done more for me than I ever, ever could do for them. And so, it's really that kinship that we try to embody as an organization."
While FLY provides different services and mentorship, he added, it's all done "with this understanding of relationships, and how do we build deep relationships with young people and allow them to save us and change us and rescue us?"
In his remarks, Father Boyle acknowledged that "people are cynical," but he thinks "the more that you can speak from the marrow of the Gospel, the more authentic the message is."
"If the message is authentic," he continued, there is the hope that it "will break through any cynicism or negativity or conspiracy theories or whatever it is that you know, people fall for. ... If you speak from the heart, it will arrive in the heart."
"How do we stay anchored in the present moment? How do we live as though the truth were true?" he asked.
The idea, or "the invitation," the priest said, "is not to even make a difference at the margins, but to allow the folks at the margins to make you different -- if you're there to receive and be reached by them, and to listen to them, and to cherish them. ... Get in there."