Even though my research on gang exit focuses on ex-gang members in Central America–especially those who convert to evangelical-Pentecostal religious faith–and not in the U.S., I am nevertheless a devoted fan of Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded the Homeboy Industries organization in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. I have enjoyed immensely his 2010 book “Tattoos on the Heart” and I recently came across a TEDx Talk he gave last year in Southern California. Boyle’s words, his style of delivery, and his demeanor make him, in my opinion, one of the most powerful speakers I have seen (and so far, I have only seen him on the screen, not in person). I highly recommend this 20-minute presentation delivered without notes in a pea-green cardigan. Although the organization he has founded is very, VERY different from the evangelical-Pentecostal ministries I visited in Central America (and NYU Press will soon release a new book by sociologist Ed Flores comparing Homeboy Industries with the Pentecostal organization Victory Outreach), Boyle’s diagnosis of the roots of the gang’s attraction (and subsequently, his prescription for reducing gang violence) share similar themes with my own work, especially regarding the topic of shame and respect. My favorite line from his TED Talk comes at the 12-minute mark when describing the obstacles to “feeling one’s worth” as a human being: “Sometimes you have to reach in and dismantle messages of shame and disgrace that get in the way so that the soul can feel its worth.” Quite beautiful but also true. Boyle writes and speaks in a different style and format compared with my sociological book, but I am, in many ways, profoundly humbled and inspired by his words and his stories.
Bill Gentile, former Newsweek correspondent and current professor of communications at American University, accompanied me for a couple of weeks in January of 2013. He worked together with Esther Gentile to edit and produce a short documentary series called “God and Gangs: Criminal Violence and Religion in Guatemala.” Here is his description of the videos:
In Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, a wave of criminal violence has replaced the politically-motivated violence of the 1980s and early 90s. With thousands of members, transnational youth gangs such as MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang now pose a significant threat to citizen security and the country’s weak and corrupt institutions. For many of Guatemala’s youth, there seems to be no way out of this vicious cycle of violence. Recent research, however, shows that Evangelical churches, particularly Pentecostals, are engaging in ministries aimed at rescuing and rehabilitating gang members and providing them with a community of support as they reintegrate into Guatemalan society.
This series of three short videos (1. “The Gangs”; 2. “The Researcher”; and 3. “The Pastor”) sketches the context of gang violence in Guatemala and highlights the role of religion as a potential source for both individual and social transformation. The series profiles the work of sociologist Robert Brenneman as he interviews former gang members who have exited the criminal world by converting to Pentecostalism. These videos were produced and directed by American University School of Communication Professor Bill Gentile as part of a project on religious responses to violence carried out by the AU Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS). For ongoing project developments, see: american.edu/clals/Violence-and-Victims.cfm.