Last year, while boarding a flight from the East Coast to the West Coast, I walked down the aisle of the airliner wearing a sweatshirt with the words “Homeboy Industries” emblazoned across my chest. Another passenger, seeing my sweatshirt (or my gray hair and beard) asked, “Are you Father Greg?”
To which I replied, “No, just one of his admirers.”
In Barking to the Choir Gregory Boyle rekindles the admiration of multitudes for the work he and Homeboy Industries do in getting Los Angeles gang members off the streets and into jobs where they can work to provide for themselves and their families. The title, Barking at the Choir, reflects some of the mixed metaphors Boyle has heard over the years.
The humor in the book is one of Boyle’s trademarks, as in his previous book, Tattoos on the Heart. But the humor in Barking at the Choir is just a vehicle for Boyle to tell the tragic, almost hopeless stories of people trapped in lives of abuse, crime, violence, incarceration, and often premature, violent death. It also puts the spotlight on society’s mistaken estimation of gang members as incorrigible and worthless.
Barking to the Choir would be a heartbreaking read were it not for the success stories Boyle tells: about how youth and young adults find purpose and redemption (in the broadest sense) from having a reason to get up in the morning, somewhere to go, and something to do. Homeboy Industries is the largest, most successful gang rehabilitation and reentry program in the world.
Barking to the Choir is also a platform on which Boyle addresses social causes, such as police abuse and the death penalty. After nearly 30 years spent working in Boyle Heights, one of the most gang-ridden neighborhoods in Los Angeles (and home to White Memorial Hospital), Boyle has a better-than-average idea about what works and what makes things worse.
Boyle was diagnosed with leukemia about 15 years ago. That reality may be why kinship and community—radical kinship—are such predominant themes in this book. It tells stories that are ultimately uplifting, stories of individuals and situations almost impossible to imagine. The situations and language sometimes portrayed in the book are typical of life on the streets, and may not be appropriate for all readers. But the stories of hope in otherwise hopeless situations are worth that minor inconvenience. The stories might even inspire some of us to be more involved in trying to solve some of the intractable problems in our communities.