Learning Grace from a ‘Homeboy’

Father Greg Boyle, left, with one of the homeboys who is part of Homeboy Industries.

When my husband and I were first married, we lived in a loft in Downtown LA. In our building, it was rare that our neighbors would look at each other, let alone talk to each other. We were lost in our own thoughts in a way that can make you seem invisible in a large city. And yet, I noticed that everyone interacted with our maintenance man, Al.

Al, a stocky Mexican man who wore a hairnet and had three dots tattooed by his left eye, could make for an opposing figure. I suppose, at one time, he was. But now, he was the great equalizer in the building. Each morning around 8 a.m., as tenants left for work, he’d mop the floors near the elevator. It wasn’t the most convenient time to mop, any other man would have been in the way during that time, but I think Al did it on purpose.

As each tenant left the building in a rush, balancing coffee and bags, Al would call out, “Hey man, peace be with you today!” in his East LA accent. Al’s greeting made us slow down a bit. Faces that were tired and low in the elevator lit up when they heard Al’s voice. It was a blessing for the day.

“Hey, Al. How ya doing?” I said one afternoon as I saw him in the hallway with a ladder and a box of light bulbs. His rolled-up shirt sleeves revealed tattoo-filled arms.

“Just praising God for another day! I’m so grateful to Him for this job,” he said, climbing the ladder to change the light bulbs in the 20-foot-high hallway.

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Over dinner that night, I asked my husband about Al. “What’s his story? He looks so tough, but he’s always talking about God and being blessed.”

“He’s one of Father Greg’s Homeboys,” my husband answered.

“Homeboys?” I asked, not following.

“Yes, Homeboy Industries. it’s run by a Catholic priest, Father Greg Boyle, who ministers to gang members in East LA. I’m guessing Al is a former gang member and by the look of some of his tattoos, served in prison for a while.”

A homeboy working in the Homeboy Industries bakery.

After washing the dishes, I looked up Homeboy Industries online. The transformative ministry works with former gang members and formerly incarcerated men and women to help them redirect their lives and find employment through a range of services that include an emphasis on rehabilitating the body, mind, and spirit of the people they minister to. Homeboy Industries runs several businesses that employ the people they work with and also helps them find jobs in the community. It provides services such as counseling, tattoo removal, and anger management classes in order to help people transition back into society after time in a gang. But it’s more than that — these ex-gang members experience God’s love through the support they receive. They aren’t just transformed on the outside but on the inside as well.

The following Saturday, I slipped out to buy the newspaper and found Al in the hallway painting. “Good morning Al!” I said cheerfully, so happy to see him.

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“Good morning, Sister!” he said smiling back. I gave him a quizzical look. “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” he asked confidently, dipping his brush in the paint can.

“Well, yes, I am,” I answered puzzled. We hadn’t had many conversations beyond the pleasantries in the hallways. “How did you know?”

“His light shines all around you, Sister!” he said joyfully.

“Really? I thought the same of you!” I said. I marveled at how God had brought together the two of us, so different, to bond over our shared faith and the call to be a witness to God’s love in the places that needed it most.

Right then, the elevator opened, and a neighbor I hadn’t me but had often heard barking orders at Al in the hallway, emerged, in pink high heels that clicked loudly as she walked.

“Good Morning!” Al said as she fished in her purse for her keys and walked toward us to her loft. She was startled as if she hadn’t seen us, even though we were only a few feet in front of her.

“Oh. It’s you,” she said, looking at Al but not acknowledging me. “Did you fix my garbage disposal?” she said in a tone that made me think she thought he was incapable of doing so.

“Yep, took care of it yesterday,” Al answered, taking no notice of her snotty tone.

“Good,” she said unlocking her door, then slamming it shut behind her. I was astonished. Did she think she was better than him? Did her status and his position give her the right to treat him this way?

My eyes widened as if to say, Gosh what a jerk! Why do you let her talk to you like that? Al seemed to read my thoughts. “We don’t know what she’s going through,” he said. “I think she’s in a lot of pain.”

His words reminded me of Mother Teresa, who said: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

I nodded in agreement, knowing God had used Al in an unexpected way that morning. Al knew God’s mercy so intimately, he was easily able to pass that grace along to others, including me.