This weekend in Sacramento, they inducted several people into the California Hall of Fame – including, the Beach Boys, Magic Johnson and now, for the first time, a Catholic priest. His name is Fr. Gregory Boyle.
Fr. Greg grew up in Los Angeles. In 1984, he was ordained a Jesuit and a few years later became pastor of an inner city parish. Not long after, he had to confront a reality of life in the inner city: celebrating his first funeral for a gang member, an 18-year-old identical twin. Writing about it later, Fr. Greg said: “At the funeral, Vicente peered into the casket of his brother, Danny. They were both wearing identical clothes. It was as if someone had slapped a mirror down and Vicente was staring at his own reflection. The snapshot of a young man peering at his own mirror image has stayed with me all these years, as a metaphor for gang violence in all its self-destruction.” Fr. Greg was moved try and do something about it.
Overcoming a lot of obstacles and protests from some people in the parish, he established a ministry at the church with one simple goal: to train young people, many of them right out of prison, so that they could get jobs and get out of the gang culture.
What started out as a parish ministry became a phenomenon: a large and thriving non-profit in LA called “Homeboy Industries.” Its motto: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Two decades after it started, Homeboy Industries has changed tens of thousands, of lives, by offering legal advice, counseling, and job training.
More importantly it teaches former gang members responsibility and self-respect.
Homebody Industries today includes a bakery, a café, a silkscreen and merchandising company, all staffed by former gang members.
Fr. Greg says that Homeboy Industries is not for those who need help, only for those who want it. His “homies,” as he affectionately calls them, learn things like how to show up on time, every day, and how to take orders, and how to meet obligations and deadlines. It teaches them how to work with others, and it helps them rewrite the story of their lives – sometimes, literally, erasing it.
Fr. Greg tells the story of one young man who had just gotten out of prison and had a rather colorful tattoo — an expletive branded on his forehead. “Blank the world,” it said. The kid couldn’t understand why McDonald’s didn’t want to hire him. Homeboy Industries helped him get the tattoo removed. That, in turn, helped him be able to look at himself in the mirror and see a different face – and a different future. The organization now has doctors and laser machines performing 4,000 tattoo removals a year.
The result of all this remarkable work is incalculable. It has given young people what they need more than anything: dignity, and worth, and hope.
By now, you might wonder: what does any of that have to do with Advent? What does this have to do with Isaiah and John the Baptist and those of us who are just trying to finish our Christmas shopping?
To hear the story of Fr. Greg is to hear the story of an Isaiah for our age. Boldly, creatively, he is bringing glad tidings to the poor, healing the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to captives.
And, like John the Baptist, he cries out in our modern desert of disinterest and cynicism and relativism. He cries out for change. There is another way to live, he says. There is a way to save those who seem beyond saving.
We may not realize it, but Fr. Greg’s story is a challenge to us all.
Each of us can be Isaiah.
Each of us can be John the Baptist.
It is part of our mandate as Catholic Christians.
“The spirit of God is upon me,” Isaiah wrote, “because the Lord has anointed me.”
Last weekend, I had the privilege of baptizing nine children in this church. As I marked the oil on their breasts and made the sign of the cross on the crowns of their heads, it struck me: we are all anointed. The prayers of baptism even recall that we share this great kinship with Christ, who was anointed priest, prophet and king. As Jesus was anointed, so are we.
We have been marked to do this great work — as the gospel puts it, to “testify to the light.”
This is not a job reserved for ancient prophets or sages or saints or angels.
It is up to us.
So we might ask ourselves: who are the poor, the captive, the brokenhearted in our lives?
Some of them might be living under our own roof. They might be sitting next to you this morning. You might even see someone who fits that description when you look in the mirror.
Many of us, I know, live with our own broken hearts, locked in our own prisons, waiting for glad tidings.
It can be hard to be a herald of the good news when you feel, like that gang member, branded — trapped by our own history, or problems, or circumstances. Sometimes the walls that hold us seem impossible to escape. Walls of injustice. Or loneliness. Or fear. Or sin.
But our faith tells us differently. It tells us that Christ’s coming 2,000 years ago brought hope to the hopeless, and light into the darkness. And we hold fast to the words of the psalm this Sunday, which come to us from that great prayer of salvation, Mary’s Magnificat: “He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.”
“He has remembered His promise of mercy.”
Our God never forgets us.
Those are tidings anyone might call glad.
This Sunday, we wear bright colors and rejoice because Christ is drawing closer. But we also rejoice in this bright hope: in the words of Isaiah, “the spirit of the Lord is upon us.” Like the “homies” of Fr. Greg Boyle, we have also been tattooed – anointed with the cross of Christ. But it’s a mark that can never be taken away – in fact, it’s one we need to share with the world.
So, this Advent, share it.
Be an Isaiah. Be a John the Baptist.
Be a Greg Boyle.
Like John the Baptist: testify to the light.
And be the prophet you were anointed to be!