Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

‘Kinship as gang rehab’ stuns Synod

Te Hīnota Whānui was stunned by the powerful testimonies of Steve Avalos and Father Gregory Boyle from Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles at a Synod wānanga last week, as they spoke about their work in the world’s largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation and reentry programme.
• Fr Greg Boyle speaks to RNZ

Taonga News | Images: Pīhopatanga o Aotearoa  |  29 May 2024  |

Synod fell into stunned silence as they listened to the gripping testimonies of Steve Avalos and Fr. Greg Boyle during their wānanga on Wednesday 22 May. The two men shared vivid life stories of people released from the grip of gang violence and incarceration, including many whose lives were backgrounded with childhoods marked by abuse, torture or neglect.

Steve Avalos told his own story of a murder conviction for gang violence at the age of 15 after losing an aunt and a brother to gang violence – and against the backdrop of a childhood spent forever shifting from house to house as his mother followed his father’s moves round different prisons where he was serving life. 

These gritty stories grounded Steve and Fr. Greg Boyle’s introduction to the work of Homeboy Industries, the gang intervention and rehabilitation programme which welcomes 10,000 rival gang members through its doors each year. There women and men gain support to leave the world of criminal gangs and rebuild their lives with the help of a community of people walking toward healing and hope.

Steve Avalos explained to Synod how Homeboy Industries is not just a place where ex-gang members and people paroled from life imprisonment get counselling, or go to school, or get a job, but it is a spiritual hospital for people who are broken, where most of all they find acceptance and love. 

“What I experienced at Homeboy is that we all matter and what that takes is for us all to be in relationship with one another….And if we stay in relationship, we’ll all heal.” 

Jesuit priest Fr Gregory Boyle began this ministry with gang members 36 years ago when he was appointed parish priest in a Los Angeles neighbourhood between two big housing projects, where eight gangs lived at war with one another. His work to offer a pathway out of gangs grew into Homeboy Industries, beginning with a middle school, and leading to a collection of businesses offering training and employment for ex-gang members.

Fr Greg told Te Hīnota Whānui that helping others turn their lives around begins by changing one’s own perceptions. He exhorted Synod members go out into the world and imagine a circle of compassion wide enough so that God might recognise it. 

He talked of Martin Luther King’s idea that church is not somewhere you come into, it is somewhere you go out from. And he said the same of Te Hīnota,

“You go out from here to imagine a circle of inclusion.

And you imagine nobody standing outside of that circle.”

“You go from here to dismantle the barriers that exclude, and you go with a particularity of wherever you live and serve and minister, and you stand at the margins, because that's the only way they'll ever get erased, is if you stand out at them.”

Fr Greg told Synod to not only pray for the poor, the powerless and the voiceless, but to position ourselves alongside them.

“You go from this place to stand with the easily despised and the readily left out. To stand with the demonised so that the demonising will stop, and with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.” 

“And the goal is kinship, and I suspect if we hung on to that goal, we would no longer be promoting justice, we would be celebrating it.”

Fr Greg told one heartbreaking story of a man who came to Homeboy Industries after serving his sentence for murder, whose own childhood had been defined by daily beatings, leaving him with shame so strong that for years he had hidden his multiple wounds. Then he told of how years later a crowd of people had clamoured to honour that same man for his gentleness, kindness and love that had come to define his character.   

Archdeacon Hannah Pomare (Te Waipounamu) found beauty in Steve and Fr Greg’s witness, which for her is deeply relevant to our Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia. 

“What he said really touched me. We tend to look at other people like it’s them and us. But he talked about kinship, I think the key is it’s whanaungatanga, it’s aroha. We all talk about love, but love has to be active, it’s a two-way relationship.”

Archdeacon Hannah said it reminded her that we all have to rethink ourselves, before we can help each other. 

“We do think we’re here to save people, but we’re not. We’re here to love them, it’s God that saves them, not us. Jesus just loved people. Sure he could be direct, but that was usually to the religious leaders, not to the poor.”

Danyon Morton-Chong (Wellington) shed a tear as he listened to the brutal life stories in the wānanga, and to its stories of transformation. 

“Sometimes we think the Gospel is about us, but it’s about everybody.”

“As Christians we are called to the margins of society, and we need to realise that going there is good news in our lives as well as in others’. There’s a profound gift in that.”

Dr Doris Kaua (Hui Amorangi o Te Upoko o Te Ika) was moved by the gut-wrenching stories she’d heard, but it was her kōrero with Stevie after the wānanga that really stayed with her.

“He couldn’t get over the freshness of the air here, or the purity of the rain, or the fact that we can drink the water from the tap.” 

“Sometimes we think of what we don’t have, and don’t see what we’ve got.

“What I took away today was that we need to be intentional, to think of others, to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and to show kindness.”

Steve Avalos and Father Greg Boyle’s full presentations to the Wednesday 22 May wānanga on peace and justice are available to view on Youtube and Facebook.