by Reverend Gregory Boyle
Thank you very much for this kind and generous honor. President Benton called me some months ago and he said, “Greg, do you believe in free speech?”, and I said yes, and he said, “Good, you’re giving one on April 28th.” If I could, how do the kids call it? Give a shout out to Will Carjoley. He is the sixth of his siblings, the last of the six to graduate from Pepperdine, which is a huge accomplishment, and also a whole lot of tuition.
I’m an expert on nothing, but for 34 years I’ve worked with gang members, and apparently, President Benton thought that made me eminently suited to address the class of 2018.
You know what Martin Luther King says about church could well be said about your time here at Pepperdine. ‘It’s not the place you’ve come to, it’s the place you go from’, and you go from here to create a community of kinship such that, God in fact, might recognize it…
And so, you choose to go from here, and you dismantle the barriers that exclude, and you go out to the margins, because that’s the only way they’ll get erased, if you stand out at them, and you stand with the poor, and the powerless, and the voiceless, and you stand with those whose dignity has been denied, and you stand with those whose burdens are more than they can bear, and every one of the graduates here has had an exquisite mutual experience of knowing what it’s like to stand with the easily despised and the readily left out.
You go from here to stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop, and you stand with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. For no kinship, no peace, no kinship, no justice, no kinship, no equality. You go to the margins not to make a difference, because then that’s about you. You go to the margin so that the folks at the margins make you different.
It’s the privilege of my life for 30 years to have been taught everything of value by gang members, and in the last few years they’ve taught me how to text, and so, I’m really grateful to them, because I find it sure beats the heck out of actually talking to people. And I’m pretty dextrous at it, LOL and OMG, and BTW, and the homies have taught me a new one, OHN, which apparently stands for, “Oh hell no,” and I’ve been using that one quite a bit lately.
I know I can’t be alone in being vexed by this autocorrect thing. I had a homegirl, kind of a tough cookie named Bertha, and she texted me on a Sunday, “Where are you at?” And I said, “I’m about to speak to a room full of monjas [ Spanish for nuns, sisters, religious women]… I pushed send, autocorrect told her I was about to speak to a room full of ninjas, which she thought was pretty darn interesting.
So there I am in a car with two older… Manuel and Poncho and they do a variety of things at Homeboy. They’re going to help me give a talk at a high school, and Manuel’s in the front seat and we’re 15 minutes on the road, when Manuel gets an incoming text, he reads it to himself and he chuckles, and I said, “What is it?” He goes, “Oh, it’s dumb. It’s from Snoopy back at the office.” …Snoopy and Manuel work together in the clock in room, where they clock in hundreds and hundreds of gang members who work there. I would not want this job. This may come as a surprise, gang members can occasionally be attitudinal. So I said, “Well, what’s it say?” And Manuel said, “Oh, it’s dumb. Let me find it. Oh, here it is. Hey dawg, it’s me, Snoops. Yeah, they got my ass locked up in county jail. They’re charging me with being the ugliest vato in America. You have to come down right now, show them they got the wrong guy.” Well, we died laughing, and I nearly drove into oncoming traffic, and then I realized that Manuel and Snoopy are enemies. They’re from rival gangs. They used to shoot bullets at each other, because I remember.
Now they shoot text messages, and there’s a word for that, and the word is kinship.
How do we obliterate once and for all the illusion that we are separate? All of you go from Pepperdine to choose to become enlightened witnesses, people who, through your kindness and tenderness, and focused, attentive love, returned people to themselves. And in the process, we’re all returned to our dignity and to our truth, that we are exactly what God had in mind when God made us.
It occurs to university sometimes to force their students to read my book against their will, and I’m not complaining, but my alma mater at Gonzaga University called me and said they had forced the incoming freshmen class to read Tattoos on the Heart, and so I said sure, and they said, “Can you bring two homies with you?” And I said, sure, and they were going to have a big talk on a Tuesday night with a thousand people. And so, I always invite homies in the same way I pick homies who are enemies, rivals, who work together at Homeboy, just that they have to share a hotel room, just to mess with them. And I always pick homies who have never flown before, just for the thrill of seeing gang members panicked in the sky.
And so, we’re at Burbank Airport, and the big bay windows, and Southwest Airlines, and they don’t have that hermetically sealed chute where you walk onto the plane, you walk out onto the tarmac like you’re the president, and you climb the steps to go to the front of the plane or the back of the plane, they have steps. And so, our plane arrives, it’s early morning and I tell Mario, “There’s our plane,” and [*$%#inaiudible], and I think, “Wow, he may actually die before we climb those steps.” And then our flight crew arrives and I see two flight attendants, females, and they both have very large cups of Starbucks coffee, and they’re schlepping up the front steps and Mario goes, “When are we going to board the plane?” I said, “As soon as they sober up the pilots. There they go now.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that, but I should tell you that Mario, in our 30 year history at Homeboy, is the most tattooed individual who’s ever worked there. His arms are all sleeved out, neck blackened with the name of his gang, head shaved covered in tattoos, forehead, cheeks, chin, eyelids that say “the end,” so that when he’s lying in his coffin, there’s no doubt. And so, I’d never been in public with him and we’re walking and people are like this, and mothers are clutching their kids more closely, and I’m thinking, wow, isn’t that interesting? Because if you were to go to Homeboy on Monday and ask anybody there who’s the kindest, most gentle soul who works there, they won’t say me, they’ll say, Mario. He sells baked goods at the counter at our cafe. He’s proof that only the soul that ventilates the world with tenderness has any chance of changing the world.
So we get to Gonzaga, … they were terrified, but they did a good job. Stories of terror, and torture, and violence, and abuse of every imaginable kind that led the audience to stand in awe at what these two had carried in their lives, rather than in judgment at how they carried it. And honest to God, if their stories had been flames, you’d have to keep your distance, otherwise you’d get scorched.
So the nighttime talk comes and it’s a thousand people, and I invite them up to share their stories in front of all these people for five minutes each, and I do my thing, and then I invite them up for Q and A, and I said, “Yes ma’am,” and a woman stands and she says, “Yeah, I got a question. It’s for Mario.” … [Mario is] terrified, “Yes?” And she says, “Well, you say you’re a father, and you have a son and a daughter who are about to enter their teenage years. What advice do you give them? What wisdom do you impart to them?
And Mario clutches his microphone, and he’s just terrified, and he’s trembling, …when finally he blurts out, “I just…”, and he stops, and he retreats back to his microphone clutching terrified retreat, but he wants to get this whole sentence out. “I just don’t want my kids to turn out to be like me.”
And there’s silence, until the woman who asked the question stands, and now it’s her turn to cry, and she says, “Why wouldn’t you want your kids to turn out to be like you? You are loving, you are kind, you are gentle, you are wise. I hope your kids turn out to be like you.” And a thousand total perfect strangers stand, and they will not stop clapping, and all Mario can do is hold his face in his hands, so overwhelmed with the emotion that this room full of people, strangers, had returned him to himself, and they were returned to themselves, and I think that’s the only praise God has any interest in.
No kinship, no peace, no kinship, no justice, no kinship, no equality. Graduates, you go from here to stand at the margins, because that’s the only way they get erased, and you brace yourselves, because the world will accuse you of wasting your time. But the prophet Jeremiah writes, “In this place of which you say it is a waste, there will be heard again, the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voices of those who sing.” Make those voices heard, for you go to the margins, not to make a difference, but so that the folks at the margins make you different…
Reverend Gregory Boyle is the author of The New York Times bestselling book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and Barking to the Choir ; also Director of Homeboy Industries the world’s largest gang-intervention and rehabilitation program.