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CURRENT ISSUE:   January 8, 2007 • VOL. 45, NO. 1Oakland, CA

L.A. priest tells ways to curb gang violence

Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, wearing one of the shirts of Homeboy Industries, addresses Oakland police and government officials about his successful efforts to help teens avoid gangs and a life of violent crime.

A Jesuit priest, who has spent over two decades ministering to gang members in Los Angeles, came to Oakland last month at the invitation of civic leaders who thought his experiences might provide new perspectives on how they could stem the city’s escalating homicide rate.

Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, spoke to civic, religious and community leaders Dec. 18 at Oakland’s City Hall about the need for a collaborative response to gang violence in their neighborhoods.

Police officers cannot do it all, he told the group that included two city council members, representatives from the Oakland Unified School District, and members of the city’s violence prevention committee. Individuals and groups, including churches, need to become more involved -- and the more the better, the priest said. Pastors from four Oakland parishes in areas of high crime and violence attended the meeting as did other Catholic leaders.

The meeting came as the city’s homicide rate continued to climb. At the end of 2006, Oakland had logged 148 homicides, a 57 percent increase from the previous year.

Father Boyle spoke about the gang intervention program he developed in East Los Angeles, but urged Oakland leaders to create their own solutions to gang problems in their neighborhoods.

When he was assigned in 1986 as pastor of Dolores Mission, Father Boyle found himself in the midst of a community with the highest concentration of gang activity in Los Angeles.

Much of it took place in two housing projects where gangs fought each other with a grim outcome. The priest has buried 150 youths from the area over the past 20 years.

He learned that lack of employment was a major issue for gang members so in 1988 he started Jobs for A Future to help prepare youth for the job market. Services include tattoo removal and resume development. A major focus of the organization is recruiting would-be employers.

The priest also founded Homeboy Industries, which puts local youth to work making products like t-shirts, mugs and hats. Not every business started under Homeboy Industries has been financially successful. The t-shirt business has provided a steady revenue while the plumbing business did not. “Who knew people didn’t want gang members in their homes,” the priest said with a laugh.

Homeboy Bakery was established at a shuttered bakery across the street from Father Boyle’s church. The bakery not only provided jobs but also brought together former members of rival gangs, who often worked side by side.

The priest emphasized that he works with gang members, not with gangs. Many young people are drawn to gangs because of a “lethal absence of hope” in their lives, he said, so community groups need to develop alternatives that will infuse a sense of hope in those “for whom hope is foreign.”

The response to gang violence, he said, must be substantive and multi-pronged. This may involve such things as strengthening schools and after school programs and nurturing community policing.

Penalties for gang violence must also be clear and consistent so that gang members will know that “there will be consequences,” Father Boyle said.

Acknowledging the presence of Catholic leaders in the room, Father Boyle said that churches are an untapped resource in the struggle to reduce violence. He suggested that Catholics work with law enforcement and community groups to develop or support outreach programs to gang members as well as programs that prevent at-risk youth from joining gangs or committing violent crimes.

The operative word for community groups is collaboration, the priest said. While the police and schools are doing their jobs, churches and community groups must also reach out to help the young people in their midst, he said.

During an impromptu discussion after Father Boyle’s talk, members of the Catholic community quickly discovered that developing communication with one another and the Oakland Police Department may be an important first step in addressing the escalating rise in violence in the city.

Father Antonio Valdivia, pastor of St. Louis Bertrand Parish, said he can feel a sense of disenchantment on the streets of his East Oakland neighborhood. Residents have told him that they call the police when they see problems like drug dealing near their homes, but no one from the police department comes to follow-up on the call. “That creates the impression that no one cares,” he said.

Oakland Police Capt. David Kozicki, who attended and helped organize the meeting, acknowledged problems with police response and said that the force is “tremendously understaffed.” As a result the police have been working mandatory overtime to respond to crime throughout the city and there is little opportunity to form bonds and contacts within neighborhoods.

The department is waiting for additional funding that will enable them to hire more officers. Until funding and hiring issues are addressed, Capt. Kozicki and others in the department have been appealing to local residents for help. “We need the community to step up and work with us to help solve problems,” he said.

Meanwhile a task force on violence in the community has been meeting at Catholic Charities of the East Bay to give concerned citizens a chance to talk about the issues of violence from a Catholic perspective and to formulate effective responses. Task force members include pastors, staff, and members of several East Bay parishes affected by violence in their communities.

The task force exchanges as well as the gathering with Father Boyle left Solomon Belette, CCEB’s executive director, feeling hopeful that solutions to violence will be found. “It requires all of us working together,” he said.


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