The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

My Dinner with Father Greg

No one is an interruption

How do people return to society after perpetrating violence? This question plagues many places on the planet, from Cambodia to Rwanda where thousands of former child soldiers have rejoined their villages, to the United States which currently has over one million people jailed for violent offenses.

My desire to understand how people leave violence behind led me to dinner with Father Gregory Boyle, S.J. at the house of my colleague and friend Jacek Kugler. Los Angeles is home to 65,000 gang members, the nation's gang capital. For 25 years, Fr. Greg as he is known, has been pastor in LA's poorest parish, the aptly named Dolores (Latin for "pain"). In 1992 Fr. Greg started Homeboy Industries   with the idea that giving gang members jobs would reduce violence. He started with Homeboy Bakery and has expanded to other businesses including Homegirl Cafe and Homeboy Silkscreen. Not all the businesses work. Fr. Greg told me he was shocked that Homeboy Plumbing was a failure. "Who knew that people didn't want convicted felons coming into their homes" he joked. Homeboy Industries also holds several dozen classes every week, including drug counseling, parenting, and GED preparation. It provides gang members with a place to work and feel cared for, to rejoin the human family. An important way Homeboy Industries does this is through tattoo removal. Each year a team of volunteer doctors performs 4,000 painful laser treatments to remove tattoos on former gang members.

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I first met Fr. Greg in May, 2010 when he came to Claremont to speak at commencement. That morning, he had laid off 330 of his 420-person staff (nearly all former gang members). Homeboy Industries is not self-sufficient. The businesses it runs cannot support the other services it provides. Los Angeles County estimates that keeping 33 minors out of gangs saves $6 million a year, yet it barely puts any money towards Homeboy Industries' $7 million annual budget.

Fr. Greg runs the largest gang intervention program in the US and it has been widely copied. The idea is simple: give gang members decent jobs and they won't kill each other. (Fr. Greg also places many gang members in "felon friendly" businesses in Los Angeles using a variety of personal contacts.) Working next to, and depending on, a person from a rival gang personalizes the interaction. Repeated exposure to others lets the brain systems that cause us to feel empathy for others reboot in "homies" and their fear and anger subside.

It is not only the jobs, but also the social support that gang members get from Fr. Greg and the Homeboy Industry staff and infrastructure. This is vitally important in re-tuning the brain's empathy system. For many of the "homies", Homeboy Industries and Dolores are the only safe places they have ever known. Fr. Greg told me about driving with two "homies" out to Palm Springs to give a speech and while driving one of the men with him got a text message. He read it out loud to the car. "Hey Vato, you gotta come back and get me out of County. The cops locked me up for being the ugliest homie. If you show up they'll know they got the wrong guy." Fr. Greg said they laughed so much he almost ran off the road. It was only later that he realized that these two men were enemies, they came from rival gangs. Now, instead of trading bullets, they were trading text messages.

Fr. Greg's central message is that our mission as human beings is to enlarge the circle of compassion as wide as it will go. This means, he said, to have kinship for every one of the poor and destitute. It means that we don't put up a wall of "us and them", but understand that there is only "us." Gang members are not disposable human beings, but people who need and deserve love and care like everyone else. Fr. Greg believes that love demands that we engage to help the poor and the violent and that love is transformative.

On Fridays from 1:00-5:00 pm, Fr. Greg performs nonstop baptisms, masses, and funerals. He has already buried 169 "homies" who have worked for Homeboy Industries. At our dinner, he told me that his 169th homie funeral was four days before. A 15-year-old former gang member, Gustavo, was at a bus stop at 7am when three bullets tore through him, fired from a car driving by who had likely recognized him as being part of a rival gang. Gustavo fell to the ground and bled out in minutes.

Just before the funeral was to take place, Fr. Greg was in his office busily opening his mail. In walked in Wanda, a "loca" homegirl or crazy woman. She yelled at people in the street all day, took heroin and was a prostitute. She had never been in Fr. Greg's office before. She barged in and sat in a chair. He face in her hands, she said she started using heroin just after graduating from St. Bernard High School and had been through something like 20 stints in rehab but couldn't stop. She said she wanted to die and needed Fr. Greg's help or she wouldn't survive. She looked up at Fr. Greg, her eyes full of tears. Fr. Greg looked at her and said he, too, started to cry as "their shame met." She was ashamed of how she had lived her life, and he was ashamed that he had thought of her as an interruption.

 

 

 

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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