I spent the week before last in East Los Angeles, in what is known as “Boyle Heights,” at two Jesuit ministries: Dolores Mission Church and Homeboy Industries.
Homeboy Industries was founded by Jesuit Father, Greg Boyle (no relation to Boyle Heights!), thirty years ago. It is an amazing organization that serves formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women in order to help them re-direct their lives. It is a place of hope that restores dignity to those most marginalized by society.
Restoration so they are able say whole-heartedly words from the Responsorial Psalm: “Here I am, Lord I come to do your will” and “To do your will, is my delight.”
I met many of the Homies (men) and Home Girls during my days at Homeboy’s main building, which is located near downtown Los Angeles. They were very welcoming. Former gang members, who are on the staff, were very open to share their stories of destruction and redemption with me.
When a Homie or Home Girl comes to the decision to turn their life around and they decide to go to Homeboy Industries to do so, the first step is to walk in the front door. No easy action. One staff member told me, “It takes courage to walk in the first time; it is a definite decision, a choice.” Why difficult? Because this is a decision to work on one-self: one’s wounded-ness; family of origin where there might have been drugs or violence or absent parents; low self-image; why they joined a gang in the first place; character faults that led them down the wrong path and so forth.
The men and women I met had done this inner work – some are still doing it – with determination and courage. Consciously or unconsciously each had cried out to God for help and experienced God “stooping toward them, having heard their cry.” (Psalm)
And, just as we can say, with the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I am made glorious in the sight of the Lord….and God is now my strength” when we have overcome a vice or said “No” to a temptation, so can former gang members.
St. Paul tells us, in the Second Reading, that we are each called to be holy. This applies to everyone regardless of their culture, race, gender, or their troublesome past: no one should be judged by the bad choices they have made; rather by the right ones they now make.
Each time we say “Yes” to God’s ways, we become a light to others. With each experience of redemption, of forgiveness, we come closer to true holiness.
How do we do this? By following Jesus, the “Lamb of God.” He of whom John the Baptist learned, “takes away the sin of the world.” “Lamb” signifies the innocence of Jesus but also points towards his passion and death.
We affirm this description of the Lord in the Mass: after the Sign of Peace, and as the presider mingles a piece of the host with the blood of Christ in the cup, we say, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us” ending twice in this form and in the third, “grant us peace.”
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” an old hymn proclaims. God is constantly calling us closer, never rejecting us despite what we do against His wishes. And that gives us hope.
God’s grace opens our eyes to see how we need to grow spiritually. Our job is to grab onto that grace and run with it. ‘Help us, Jesus, to see your light and to follow it always.’ To holiness.
Isaiah 49:3,5-6 Psalm 40 I Corinthians 1:1-3 John 1:29-34