Teaching compassion

Jeff vonKaenel

Standing at the Carmichael Presbyterian Church podium in front of 300 people, Los Angeles Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle was planning to read the text on his phone to demonstrate how gang members have taught him many life lessons—including how to text. He had set up the sight gag well, picking up his phone to read the message.

Unfortunately, there was a new text on his phone. Angel, the younger brother of a former employee of Homeboy Industries, had just been killed.

Still shaken, Boyle went ahead with his speech. After all, that is what he has been doing for the last 25 years—going on, despite setbacks and tragedies, while serving as a priest in a Catholic parish in a tough L.A. neighborhood and then as the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention project in the country.

Boyle told the Sacramento audience heartfelt story after heartfelt story of how hardened gang members were able to turn their lives around when given a chance. He told us how once these former rival gang members started working side by side, it was hard for them to continue hating each other.

These individual stories pointed to a bigger story. At birth, no one is part of a gang. Only individuals who have lost hope are interested in gangs. The fear of death or prison means little to one who cannot imagine a future without death or prison. So, the solution to the problem of 120,000 gang members in Los Angeles is not more effective police enforcement, stiffer penalties and more prisons: The solution is to create a new path.

Boyle’s Homeboy Industries offers such a path. This starts with day care, better schools and real job opportunities. In any given month, up to 1,000 former gang members and recently incarcerated men and women come through the doors, seeking services including free tattoo removal, job training, parenting classes, GED tutoring, legal assistance and substance-abuse counseling.

Speaking at the Carmichael Presbyterian Church speakers’ series and at his sermons the next day, Boyle talked about expanding our circle of compassion. Recognizing that people naturally have compassion for those in their circle, yet find it hard to feel compassion for strangers, he believes that his work is to expand that circle of compassion until no one is left out.

Listening to Boyle, I was deeply moved. There are and always will be people who make bad choices. But if we respond to them with contempt, marginalizing and incarcerating them, their choices will always be limited. But if we can find the compassion in our hearts to provide some options or a path to a better future for them, we may find that people with hope make better choices. I do not know if compassion alone would have meant that Boyle would not have received such a devastating text message, but I believe we should try to find out.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.