Just a Cupcake Between Us: Homeboy Industries Tour

Often we strike the high moral distance that separates ‘us’ from ‘them,’ and yet it is God’s dream come true when we recognize that there exists no daylight between us.

Miguel and Jose share their stories. “Prayer needs to be followed by action,” Jose says.

Father Gregory Boyle wrote these words in Tattoos on the Heart, a book filled with down-to-earth descriptions of life among a community stricken by gangs and gang activity. Father Boyle’s several decades of ministering in this community have resulted in Homeboy Industries, a combination of services and social enterprises that employ men and women straight out of incarceration and anyone wanting to leave street life.

Tattoos on the Heart  was one of my favorite reads last year was so I was excited to see Homeboy Industries firsthand when I visited a few weeks ago. The absence of an “us” and “them” mentality was apparent as soon as I stepped off the bus. The first person who met us wasn’t Father Boyle or a seminary graduate. Nope, our tour guide was Jose who shared how he had arrived at Homeboy Industries eight years ago as a seasoned gang leader. In fact, from the salesmen in the gift shop to clerks in the bakery, everyone we met were people who shared similar stories. Jose introduced us to one of his colleagues who had arrived just three months earlier. Sweat poured down this young man’s face as talked with us, no doubt one of the first tours ever to hear his story.

Tour with my CCDA buddy Albert; Father Gregory is in the office behind us

Father Boyle was present as well but he only joined us momentarily for a group photo. The rest of our time and interaction was left in the capable hands of trainees, men and women who have or are currently going through Homeboy Industry programs.

Our guide shared with us how Homeboy Industries was established in 1988 in gang-neutral territory in the middle of LA. When they first arrived at the current location in 2007, the surrounding businesses didn’t want them. Business owners protested and police harassed them but eventually they came to see Homeboy Industries as a positive presence in their community.

Homeboy Industries likes to give recognition: from birthdays to sober birthdays and a plaque on the wall for passing your GED

I found it hard to keep track of all the positive aspects as I made notes in my phone while our guide lead us past the homework center, computer center and legal department. He also pointed out one of their most popular services: tattoo removal that’s free to the public. He told us that they currently have a waiting list of 1200, unless a tattoo is gang-related and visible, then those requests get bumped to the front of the line.

On the second floor, our guide directed us into the group therapy room.
“Therapy is mandatory for those going through Homeboy Industry programs,” he explained and shared how many professional therapists volunteer at the center. Plus they have several full time therapists. At the back of the group therapy room was a big window that overlooked the bakery which is one of several social enterprises that Homeboy Industries has started. These provide work experience for Homeboy trainees and include:

View of bakery from back of group therapy room.

Camaraderie at the Cafe

Right before we departed, homeboy Miguel shared his story describing how he had sat outside for two hours the first time he came to Homeboy Industries, working up courage to enter the office. When he finally did, he felt the brotherhood in the place instantly. Similarly, earlier our guide told us how during an economic downturn they had to let 300 guys go, but they all showed up to work the next day saying “we have nowhere else to go.”

However, no one gets fired at Homeboy Industries; instead they are just told to come back when they are ready. Additionally, Homeboy Industries is a place of innovation where wishful thinking become reality. They are currently creating a volunteer fire department simply because it is a dream of a lot of the guys to be firefighters.

Hillary Swank buying pastries at Homeboy Cafe.

At Homeboy Industries, former rivals bake bread side-by-side. Former enemies work together to print t-shirts with messages of hope.

“We work hand in hand with rivals and that’s just a common courtesy,” our guide told us.

Before we left, I purchased sweets for my roommate’s birthday from Homegirl Cafe. The customer in front of me was Hillary Swank. The space between her and the trainee behind the counter was about the size of a pink-frosted cupcake.

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