by Thomas Vozzo and Gregory Boyle SJ
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
Although the book is written by Thomas Vozzo, the content is specifically about Father Greg Boyle. In the forward of the book Father Gregory Boyle, SJ tells us of his beginnings of the Homeboy Industries: “I was on a Zoom call with a group in Dublin recently when the host of the meeting quoted an old Irish saying I had never heard before: “It is in the shelter of each other that people live.” This saying captures the essence of Homeboy Industries. If a prison is how society practices exclusion, then Homeboy Industries practices inclusion. Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention, rehab, and re-entry program in the world. It’s been around since 1988, and many thousands of gang members have found shelter in the place and each other’s hearts. Homeboy Industries puts forward the idea that we need to build a system of care that offsets our over-built system of punishment. Our CEO for these many years, Tom Vozzo, whose text you now hold in your hands, provides here his “eye-witness” account of Homeboy’s counter-intuitive way of proceeding.”
Before joining Homeboy, Tom had begun experiencing a disconnect between his values and those of corporate America. He soon discovered that there existed two Americas and that, indeed, the poor had been forgotten by one of them. This realization formed his path to our place in Los Angeles Chinatown, where he chose to be in the proximity of folks in whose vicinity he’d never been before. Tom offers his spiritual and practical accounting of this experience, presented here with clarity and tender grace. His words offer a window into a reality that is uniquely his own and beneficial to us all. His reverence vii for the complexity of things and his steadfast admiration for the poor’s indomitable spirit grace each page and underscore the power of a beloved community of belonging. Systems change when people do, and people change when they are cherished. This is the Homeboy Way. More than a handful of times, Tom Vozzo has taken a crew of senior staff, all gang members, now in leadership roles, on very arduous hikes. They spend an entire day climbing to heights unthinkable for these guys who have only known the terror of street violence and who have lost nearly half their lives to prison. One particular Saturday, Tom took them all to ascend Mt. Whitney. A homie named José described it as “Horrible. It was intense, and we were exhausted. It seemed like we’d never get there. We stopped talking to each other, much less looking at each other. Everyone had their heads down—just tryna make it. It was all kinda ‘every man for himself.’” José told me that many of the homies just wanted to give up and descend the mountain before reaching the pinnacle. He also shared that Tom noticed the changes that had come over them. At one point, Tom calls them all to attention and proposes the way forward: “You have to look up,” he says. “You can’t just stare at the ground. Don’t forget to admire what you see. Take in the beauty of this place and each other.” He invited them to gratitude, which is always bound to happen when we lift our heads. When we stand tall with our eyes open, God becomes recognizable as love, and we realize that community trumps gangs; community trumps the daunting path ahead of us. Tom and the homies reached the top, and they were thrilled. The tenor of their exhilaration was born from a call to not just put one foot in front of the next. Rather, their joy found its roots in an invitation to look to the sky and to find one’s harmonious strength there. Every morning at Homeboy, we begin the day with “Morning Meeting.” We celebrate people’s birthdays, sober dates, new jobs, and children being returned to our folks. We announce the tattoo removal hours, give a rundown of classes that day, declare the bread special from the bakery, and finally, we end with the “Thought for the Day.” The Homeboy Way on one particular day, Tom gave the “Thought.” He had finished reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness He quoted the founder of the Catholic Worker movement: “I longed for a church near at hand where I could go and lift up my soul.” Tom spoke movingly of Homeboy as the place where he palpably feels his soul being lifted up. He has allowed himself to be reached by those on the margins, and the experience has altered his heart. I am eternally grateful to Tom Vozzo for his singular leadership at Homeboy Industries. He has shown us his humble example of how we are meant to receive people whose burdens are more than they can bear and whose dignity has been denied. He has shown, in this book, a way forward and the path for us all to “look up” and see each other. This book points the way to our foundational joy in choosing to be a shelter for each other and to seek to live in each other’s hearts.
Thomas Vozzo wrote this book because he feel fortunate to have learned so much during his time at Homeboy Industries. To put this in context: He viewed his life by traditional measures, as being pretty successful and gaining a certain level of stature for what he accomplished. With heightened status comes the usual amount of confidence and sureness about the profound issues of life. And yet through his time at Homeboy, he has come to learn that he didn’t know as much about life as he thought. This blind spot he had is typical for so many of us. Through no fault of his own, by just being in the mainstream of society, all of us stay isolated from those most unlike ourselves and outside our station in life. Without having to come face to face with the marginalized or demonized members of society, we do not have to face the reasons for their circumstances, and we end up being absolutely confident in our view of them and their issues. Homeboy Industries is the largest and most successful gang re-entry program in the world. It was founded and is led by Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, who has dedicated his life to helping men and women get out of the gang lifestyle. As they transform their lives, these men and women show us why people should not be defined by the worst thing they’ve done. Homeboy xi has helped thousands of people heal from complex trauma and become contributing members of our society. Homeboy helps the people everyone else in society has given up on. Homeboy Industries is a model program with proven results. It’s a special place that offers forgiveness, hope, and “first” chances. And, for so many people, it has become a sanctuary, for it’s one of the few places on earth where God is so very apparent. I arrived at Homeboy exactly when they needed somebody like me with the skill set of running successful organizations. Tom also arrived at a time when he needed to learn more about himself and his spiritual trajectory. Along the way of helping Homeboy thrive over the past several years, I have gained knowledge and insight about my own spirituality and about the plight of the people Homeboy Industries serves. I’ve made friendships and relationships that are remarkable. I’ve experienced more sorrow and more joy in these past few years than in my whole life before that. I know I’m but a bit player in this story, but my role is that of bringing “privileged eyes” to the message. I view myself as a reporter to what I saw and as an eyewitness to understanding humanity in a much different way. Along the way, almost by providence, I was able to see how business can be done with a different set of priorities so that everyone benefits: the owners, the management, and those who have never been able to sustain a job but now do. I learned how to help the “unemployable become employable.” I participated in the development of business models that provide not just economic impact but social impact. Doing business the Homeboy way is the direction we need to take our collective efforts and is a road map to re-organize the capital markets. From my first day at Homeboy, I had my head turned every which way as to how Father Greg and the team approach the life challenges the homies faced. Homeboy’s approach to helping people was so counter to conventional wisdom that it really caused me to do a double take. And many times, I paused so that I could listen and learn. Fr. Greg’s approach was so pure in helping people that I would be cheering inwardly and thinking, Yes, that’s right. After many years of accumulating these observations, I decided to write this book. The Homeboy Way His goal is to share these learnings with as many people as possible in the hope that society at large becomes more aware, enlightened, and compassionate. By breaking the rules of our long-held assumptions, we can finally get to a better place in helping those less fortunate. In today’s environment, we have massive tidal currents flowing around the issues of social injustice and racial inequities. What I didn’t know at the time, but do now, is that I was fortunate to be on the front lines with the people involved. This is a story about how a “corporate executive” type became not just a nonprofit CEO of a human-services agency but, more important, a participant in the fight to bring resources and help to those on the margins of our society. Along the way I learned the deep struggles of those less fortunate than me and how the rules of society are stacked against them. I also witnessed firsthand how leaders from the business community, government agencies, law enforcement, justice departments, and elected government stay within their comfort zones and thus perpetuate systems that don’t enable true restorative care. I believe the Homeboy way is an antidote to this. I stand in awe at the resilience of the Homeboy clients. The burdens they carry and the way they move their lives forward is inspiring. From them I have learned to open my heart and be touched by their gentle and authentic friendship. How they understand God’s grace has led me to seek my own spiritual journey—the kind of journey we all can take. I sometimes view this writing effort as writing a love letter to Homeboy. Over the years, Homeboy has had a lot of visitors, and nearly everyone who visits comes away feeling uplifted. I’ve tried to capture some of that feeling on these pages, to bring the Homeboy culture alive to the reader. It’s my life’s honor to be a part of the Homeboy community and to serve humbly alongside my fellow humans. I ask that, as you read these pages, you read them with an open heart and fresh eyes. For when we all buy into The Homeboy Way, a movement will be created.