David Cook: Nothing stops a bullet like a job

David Cook: Nothing stops a bullet like a job

December 15th, 2011 by David Cook in News

Father Greg Boyle is crazy. Outrageous. A quart low. A few cards short of a full deck. A few Bradys short of a bunch.

Or as they might say in East Los Angeles, he's loco.

Boyle, known as G-Dog to his friends, is a Jesuit priest living in one of the worst neighborhoods in Los Angeles -- the Pico Heights-Aliso Village public housing project, which many claim is the gang capital of L.A.

In 2008, the Los Angeles Police Department estimated 450 gangs containing 25,000 members in L.A. By contrast, Chattanooga contains approximately 40 gangs with about 1,000 members, according to current police estimates.

For the last 20 years, G-Dog has lived among the mainly Latino community there, fighting gang violence with one of the craziest and most radical weapons of all.

Love.

"What if we were to invest in gang members, rather than just seek to incarcerate our way out of this problem?" he writes in his book "Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion."

Boyle loves the line from the poet Galway Kinnell: "Sometimes it's necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness." Boyle reteaches thousands of gang members their loveliness through Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the U.S.

Homeboy removes gang members' tattoos, provides GED help and emotional counseling, then puts them to work: silk-screening, a bakery, two diners, solar panel installation and merchandising. Kids who were enemies on the street are transformed into co-workers and friends.

"The true business of Homeboy Industries is not business," says the organization's website. "The bottom line for Homeboy is to infuse hope in those for whom hope is foreign. And hope is a job."

Nothing, Boyle says, stops a bullet like a job. Last year, he claims, more than 12,000 gang members walked through his door, wanting hope and a job.

Chattanooga leaders say the same thing can happen here.

"These kids want two things," said retired police officer and community leader Napoleon Williams. "Love and a job."

On Tuesday, inside a meeting room connected to Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox's office, Williams met alongside representatives from city and county law enforcement, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and Launch Chattanooga, a group dedicated to job training for people in low-income communities.

Their work? To create an alternative path for at-risk youths. In place of gangs, there would be employment. Mentorship. Training.

One of the models they're using? Homeboy Industries.

One of the beliefs they're clinging to? Given opportunities for jobs and whole, healed lives, at-risk kids will turn away from gangs and into the arms of mentors and community leaders.

"I know they will," said the Rev. Ronnie Bullard of First Baptist Church of Washington Hills.

For more than 90 minutes, they brainstormed ideas on types of jobs to offer: silk-screening, car-detailing, welding, T-shirt design. They alternated between the possibility of creating their own nonprofit business or partnering with existing businesses in the city.

The group -- which will be led by District 8 City Councilman Andraé McGary -- decided on a working title: Second Chances. Their motto: The future is ours.

"The point is not to blow the roof of the NASDAQ," said Assistant District Attorney Boyd Patterson. "It's much more noble than that."

Is it crazy to think that silk-screening can stop Chattanooga gang violence?

Yes, I think it is.

But it's crazier to do nothing. It's crazier to think that handcuffs and prison bars alone will solve this problem.

The breadth and depth of vision, labor and love required for this Homeboy-meets-Chattanooga vision to succeed is massive. Huge. Miles wide. Miles deep. And right now, it feels like crazy David shuffling up to face the Goliath.

But David won, didn't he? Gang violence is a giant, but not an invincible one. Redemption, second chances and crazy ideas are always tougher.

Craziest of all is losing hope in that.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org.