Ex-L.A. gang members carry a message of hope to a small Alabama town
For over 20 years, Homeboy Industries has offered a way out of gang life for thousands of young people in Los Angeles. Established by Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, in 1988, Homeboy has garnered national recognition and become a model across the country for helping people transition out of gang life. Their many programs include job training and placement assistance as well as small businesses — including a café, bakery, catering service, merchandise, landscaping service and maintenance service — where the most difficult to place individuals are given transitional jobs, thus providing a safe, supportive environment in which to learn both concrete and soft job skills and to build their resume.
In 2007, Homeboy began exporting their expertise to other areas of the country troubled by gang violence. The Alabama Homeboys video is a short documentary on the intervention work Homeboy employees Agustin Lizama and Luis Colocio are doing with young people in the drug and gang-infested town of Prichard, Alabama. Nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy Award, it is a powerful testimonial to both the extreme hopelessness that Prichard’s youth experience and the incredible alternative vision that Homeboy Industries can offer. While in town to attend the Emmy award ceremony, Lizama and Colocio stopped by Busted Halo’s offices.
Busted Halo: Tell me about how the Alabama Homeboy video came about.
Agustin Lizama: The movie is about us working with a community in Prichard, Alabama. John Eads from an organization called Light of the Village came to us for guidance about how to construct a gang intervention/prevention program. So we go there and help him with his program and at the same time help him with these kids, do some intervention with them, and give them love and show them love. For me it’s really been a dream come true to be part of that community. I’ve never been to a place that’s been so poor, the buildings are shot out… the poverty there, man; it makes me feel like where I came from — my ghettos — like I came from rich-ness compared to how those kids have to live over there.
BH: You grew up in a pretty poor neighborhood in LA?
AL: Yes. It’s very poor, the ghetto. It’s ghetto to ghetto. But it doesn’t compare to their ghettos over there.
BH: Luis, can you talk a little bit about what you saw and how you reacted to the poverty?
Luis Colocio: It was just… very hopeless. Abandoned houses left and right. Then you had young kids with no shoes. Kids accept that that’s the way life is, and they go on the best way they can. Where we came from, even though it’s drug or gang-infested, you have some type of hope because you have bus routes that can take you to and from, but right there in Alabama, you’re stuck if you don’t have a vehicle or no family or friends; you’re literally stuck in the ghetto day in, day out. There’s nowhere you can even walk to for a safe haven, even like a park, where you could play. It’s really like a jungle over there. You just feel hopeless there. And we don’t even know what goes on in every individual’s household at night, but what we’ve seen in the day, it just shocked us. Literally shocked us.
Agustin Lizama: When you look at this video, it’s showing you that anything is possible. Here we are, two gang members from LA, who are going to Prichard, Alabama, and making a difference with these kids and being able to touch these kids in ways that even their own parents aren’t able to.
BH: So at least growing up in LA you could see different ways of life and realize, “It doesn’t have to be this way?”
LC: Yeah, exactly, and I can say like for me, being a drug addict at a very young age, I was just literally stuck. And you have the gang culture in Los Angeles, and you can’t just go and watch on one block; you’ll get shot.
But these kids aren’t even in gangs yet. All of them are on drugs, so they’re already just stuck and hopeless. And like you said, they don’t see other neighborhoods or other chances, like “one day I could get out of here and go somewhere else.” They’re just literally stuck in one place. So what John gives them in Light of the Village is a sense of hope. They do arts and crafts and they play basketball, and the most, most important thing is that they can have a relationship with their Creator, and pray and sing hymns — because God inhabits the praises of His people. Where the spirit of God is, there is liberty. And I know that in some way, or in every way, that gives them some sense of hope, where this man literally takes them to swimming pools and they have pizza parties and stuff like that. But then you have the young kids — 13, 14, 15, 16 years old — they’re already peer-pressured into the gang lifestyle: selling drugs, having expensive shoes to wear and the glamour of — you know how rap music glamorizes the ghetto and drug sales and gang banging? There’s no future in that lifestyle.
BH: There’s a really powerful scene where Augustin is talking to Anthony. And he was asking about killing people in a way that sort of glamorized it and you said it was like rubbing salt in a wound for you. What’s it like to hear a 12-year-old kid talking like that?
AL: All around it hurts because I know what direction he wants to go with this. Because I was that kid once. And when I mean salt on the wound, I’m talking about my whole experience, everything I’d been exposed to and some of the stuff that I did that I’m not too proud of anymore. But Anthony — this is a kid that you love with all your heart. And you’re seeing that the guidance that’s been given to him has affected him now; how it’s already instilled in him and he so strongly believes in this system now that he feels that this is the way to go. And this is what he wants to take out of us and he’s not open to the other part that I’m trying to offer him — the most important part of it.
BH: The redemptive part.
AL: Yeah, exactly. He’s not really open to that, and it’s going in one ear and right out the other. So what I’m seeing with him, and even in the video — it hurts me even more; because I know he’s going to learn the hard way. And I just hope he doesn’t become another statistic where by him learning the hard way it’s going to cost him his life, either in a prison or in a cemetery.
LC: A lot of these kids, when they go to the village, like, when they’re there they can be kids and when they’re there they can expose themselves that way. And when they are playing basketball or playing Frisbee or playing football, you see the way the kids are coming out of them. But at the end of the day, the only place they’ve got to go back to is their homes and that’s if they even have a home. And they have to go back to the neighborhood they came from. So they go back to these neighborhoods, of course, and a lot of times it’s a survival thing. This is what poor is really all about. They’re exposed to poverty. So of course, making a little money, selling a little dope, selling a little crack — of course they’re going to do that. It’s a survival thing. They have to eat. And trust me, some of the money they do get, they do use it to eat.
BH: You mentioned God, Augustin. Is the notion of spirituality a big part of Homeboys and is it a part of what you’re doing here?
AL: For me, in my own experience, at first spirituality wasn’t that big a deal for me. I finally told myself in ’04 — when I was back in the county jail, facing some time and I had a new case — when I told myself, “This is it; I’m done.”
I remember telling myself, “What am I doing, man?” I started replaying my life. I started just telling myself, “Man, who has really been here for me and why am I really wasting my life?” And I’d already had my kids, so I started thinking about my kids and I just started thinking, “Man, what am I doing to them? Here I am, I grew up with no father, and I’m doing the same thing to them.”
I remember talking to my 3-year-old daughter on the phone and it just blew me away. She said, “Daddy, I miss you and I love you.” Especially when she said, “I love you,” tears just started flowing down from my eyes. I knew what she was going through because that’s what I went through. My Dad did a lot of time and this was the same thing I was going through.
So this feeling just came inside me, and I promised her that time I would never do this to her again, no matter how much time I got, this was it. So my spirituality wasn’t big at the time; at the time it was more about what I was going through. But it was God working in me too. I didn’t know that at the time; now I know that.
So when I got to Homeboys, I really didn’t know too much about spirituality, because Homeboys doesn’t enforce it on you. But being part of Homeboys it becomes a part of you. Your faith starts growing.
Agustin Lizama: What Fr. G does is he gives us love and makes us feel loved, like no other person ever has, besides God. He gives you unconditional love. He accepts you no matter where you come from; he accepts you for who you’ve been and what you’ve done, and he embraces you. And he loves you, no matter what. That alone attaches us to him.
BH: How so?
AL: God’s presence is all over that place. The first thing I did when I went there was a retreat. We went to Los Altos, In Northern California, by San Jose. There’s a retreat center there and Fr. G invited me. And that’s when it really hit me — on that retreat. Because there we are, about 15 of us, crying with each other. Hugging each other. Embracing each other. Lifting each other up. Pouring our hearts out to each other. And at the same time, Fr. G was right there with us, so he was bringing the Bible part into it. And what happened was — I remember what blew mind away was — Fr. G, he did a thing where Jesus started cleaning his disciples feet, and he brought that into it, and what he said was, “We’re going to clean each other’s feet right here.” So we started doing that right there for each other. And ever since then, I was like, “Man.” I heard that story, and I wanted to hear more. I need to hear more of that. And that was when I started reading the Bible and started digging into it and reading all those stories. Little by little, my spirituality started growing, because it wasn’t enforced on me, but I was introduced to it. It was a journey for me, but it’s got to come the right way and it’s got to be the right timing, in other words; you’ve got to be open to receive it.
BH: What do you think finally made the difference?
AL: You know what Fr. G does is he gives us love and makes us feel loved, like no other person ever has, besides God. He gives you unconditional love. He accepts you no matter where you come from; he accepts you for who you’ve been and what you’ve done, and he embraces you. And he loves you, no matter what. That alone attaches us to him; that’s what embraces us to him. When we hire individuals, we start off with a morning prayer. We start off asking if there are any announcements for the day, and then they say the curriculum for the day, and then you have someone else saying the thought of the day, just some type of wisdom for the day, like if you want to talk about healing or talk about unconditional love, or talk about anger, but there’s always a story behind it, and there’s always a positive message in the end. So we start off like that, and this is everybody; like 210 employees right now. All in the same room. And we end the day with a prayer.
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