Malibu resident Martin Sheen joins the Homeboy Industries founder at a book signing.
By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times
When Father Gregory Boyle spoke at Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church on Friday, a good-sized audience was treated to a pair of dynamic storytellers: the eloquent Boyle and actor Martin Sheen, a member of the Malibu parish, who introduced the speaker.
Boyle, the iconic East Los Angeles Jesuit priest who in 1988 founded Homeboy Industries to assimilate former gang members into mainstream society by providing them with hands-on business experience, made the appearance to sign his memoir, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.”
Electricity filled the air as people filled the small community room on Aug. 27. Realtor Janice Burns was instrumental in organizing Boyle’s OLM appearance after seeing him speak at Corpus Christi Church in Pacific Palisades.
“My girlfriend had recommended the book,” she said. “I read it and I found the book compelling. I asked Father Boyle, ‘What can I do to help?’ He said, ‘Organize a book signing.’”
Florida native Jessica Johnson and Kristine Gamboa, both first-year law students at Pepperdine University, were among the 250 people in attendance.
“I admire Greg Boyle and his mission to give youth new opportunities,” Gamboa said.
OLM’s Father Bill Kerze opened with a sobering update of the critical-yet-stable conditions of Monsignor John Sheridan and Pepperdine University law professor Doug Kmiec, survivors of last week’s car crash near Las Virgenes Canyon Road that claimed the life of Sister Mary Campbell. He asked everyone to pray for their recovery and to donate blood.
Despite the weight of fresh tragedies, the evening was spirited and ripe with humor and uplifting anecdotes. Quoting poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore (a friend of Mohandas Gandhi), Sheen, who said he “had a small part in a big film,”1982′ Best Picture Oscar-winner “Gandhi,” elicited laughs when he proclaimed that “everyone in Hollywood wanted to be like Gandhi: thin, tan and moral!”
Father Boyle went for more than morality with Homeboy Industries.
The slogan, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” that appeared on Homeboy T-shirts summed up the secret of Boyle’s success in rehabilitating troubled youth.
Homeboy Industries, which started with a tortilla factory, has since expanded to include downtown’s Homegirl Cafe and various developmental programs.
“It’s not for those who need help,” Boyle said. “It’s only for those who want it.”
He conceded to one gaping hole in his business plan: “Homeboy Plumbing was not as successful as it could have been. Can you believe that people didn’t want gang members in their homes?”
Often speaking in the vernacular of his “homies,” Boyle shared personal and poignant memories from his storied career of repurposing gang-bangers as productive members of society.
Boyle spoke of former gang member Frank [last names are not revealed to protect identities], the inspiration for Homeboy’s tattoo removal service, who had a really big one that read “[expletive] the World!” and who couldn’t understand why he was having a hard time finding a job.
Boyle also recalled a hilarious conversation between Homegirl Cafe waitress Kristina and actress Diane Keaton. Kristina told the actress, “Your face seems so familiar! I feel like I know you!” Keaton admitted she got that a lot. Then Kristina lit up. “No, now I know! We were locked up together!”
After some uproarious laughter in the room, Boyle quipped that Keaton has not returned to the Cafe.
Boyle acknowledged Homeboy’s recent financial hardships. The organization was almost forced to close its doors.
“We’re doing okay,” he said. “We had this moment: May 13, ‘Black Thursday.’ We laid off 300 people. In 45 days, we raised $3 million and brought back 100 people.” (Chevron announced last week that it gave a $100,000 grant to the organization.)
Built on $8 million, Homeboy has a $4 million annual operating budget.
“If you buy this book, it helps us keep our doors open,” said Boyle, who said he is heartened every time a troubled teen smiles and asks to return to work the next day.
“That’ the sound of community trumping gang,” he said. “That’ the sound of attachment being made.”
On the eve of the release of “The Kid: Chamaco,” Sheen was not at his movie’s premiere but alongside Father Boyle. The “Apocalypse Now” star told The Malibu Times that he had full faith in Boyle’s approach to addressing damaged youth.
“I’ve been a supporter for many years,” Sheen said, “and I see firsthand the work he does for Homeboy. He’s so disarming.”
Sheen explained how Boyle is able to balance the word of God with the worldly, rather than straight proselytizing. He noted the pastor’s perseverance under adverse conditions in Boyle Heights, suggesting Boyle had dodged bullets from gangs and police alike.
“Hollenbeck was the last place he had support,” Sheen said. “Still, he never backed down.”
Homeboy receptionist of five years Janely Masvidal handed out flyers at Friday’s event. Pregnant with her fourth baby, the tattooed former gang member credited Boyle with her turnaround.
“Today, I’m a better person,” she said. “I don’t use drugs, I have an apartment, I have therapy.
“He’s very forgiving,” Masvidal continued. “He’s like a father if you don’t have parents. Because of him, I now have everything.”
“Tattoos on the Heart” can be purchased online at www.homeboy-industries.org