A few weeks back, I walked into Homeboy Industries in East Los Angeles on an impulse. I was in L.A. to visit with the local United Way CEO and to learn more about their work to address homelessness and poverty. With a few hours to spare until our meeting and the realization that I was in the city where my in-flight reading, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, took place, I mustered the courage to navigate a foreign city in search of a program working with ex-gang members.
The cab overshot the destination by a block, and instead of walking the distance, I asked him to turn around and drop me at the front door. I knew why I was anxious. My understanding of L.A. was based only on what I’d seen on the news and heard in songs. “Who goes to L.A. in search of gangs?” I thought to myself as I exited the cab.
But as I entered Homeboy Industries I was immediately at peace. A burly guy greeted me as I made my way to the front desk and asked for a tour. After completing some paperwork and before I could take my seat, a tall affable woman approached and struck up a conversation. She was a program coordinator. Within minutes, I was walking out back with another couple on our tour led by two former gang members. They took turns telling their personal stories. One was recently released from prison after a 36 year sentence for murder. The other, a younger man, was just a few years my junior at 35. After joining a gang at 12, he racked up 20 parole violations and three stints in prison.
They both spoke about the seduction of gang life and the sense of family it provided. They also spoke with very vivid images about the devastation. With tears streaming from my eyes, I couldn’t help but think of my own younger brother. Like them, he chose to gang affiliate in St. Louis and in 1995 was shot multiple times. Like many homeboys in L.A., he is paralyzed from the neck down.
Both men also spoke about restoration. They were being restored not to a former self, but to a newer, more confident self. A self that understands, even in the midst of the most difficult situation, there is still choice. They spoke about the challenges of turning their lives around at a time when it is extremely difficult to find legitimate employment as a convicted felon. They talked about hope and the crushing absence of hope. I’ve been hopeless before and can understand.
We have the power to transform one life at a time. There is nothing more satisfying than harnessing our impulse to challenge ourselves and channeling it to achieve a greater impact.
Originally published at www.helpingpeople.org.