Father Gregory Boyle came to speak to Eckerd students and the St. Petersburg community about his gang rehabilitation program, Homeboy Industries, on Oct. 30. Boyle was both inspirational and charming, but was also a prime example of people in this country who have yet to acknowledge their privilege.
Homeboy Industries is one of the largest companies that support and employ ex-gang members, according to their website. I was eager to hear him speak about his experiences and how he manages to help gang-affiliated people in his Los Angeles neighborhood, but during the speech Father Greg joked about his employees in a hurtful and distasteful way.
Many aspects of the talk were positive, like how Boyle sees God as something bigger than the stereotypical christian entity. The Priest hammered that the idea we have of God is too small and judgemental, and this country is in need of a perspective change. He also said we must make our God adaptive and open-minded: someone that accepts everyone.
Talk of an inclusive God instilled hope that one day the people of this country will learn to accept each other-- no matter their background. Boyle used examples of what he has learned from those he works with and the empathy they have brought out within him, but this is where my discomfort began.
An example of a story he told is about a man who had “F*** the World” tattooed on his forehead, which elicited laughter from himself and the audience. The trauma one must endure to want such a sentence tattooed on their forehead is unimaginable, all just to be the butt of a joke. To my surprise, I was not alone in this feeling, as other Eckerd students agreed that some of what Boyle had to say was rude and disrespectful.
Jamie Myre is an activist on campus for equal rights, and also attended the speech. Jamie approached me a few days after Boyle’s visit and said she heard that I was upset about parts of the speech and wanted to discuss it further. It was validating to hear someone with such a strong voice on campus, who agreed with my opinion.
“There is a fine line between being an engaging speaker and straight up making fun of undeserving people to a privileged, predominantly white audience who seems to only be taking laughs away from [the conversation],” Myre said.
Boyle’s jokes also stemmed from grammar mistakes made by those who confided in him. Many ex-gang members were not fortunate enough to have a solid education, so taking their words and using them for the amusement of others is cruel. As recipients of the talk, it is important to keep this conversation open and alive. Coming from a privileged school like Eckerd, it is our job to stand up for those who cannot, and acknowledge prejudice when we see it.
Laughing between each word, Boyle went on to tell the story of a “sassy” waiter, employed by Homeboy Industries, who did not recognize actress Diane Keaton when she walked into the restaurant. Father Greg condescendingly explained how the waitress, an ex-gang member, always had a lot of attitude when serving customers, but mistakenly recognized Keaton, and said: “I know you, we must have done time together.” The audience burst out laughing, ignoring the fact that Boyle was making fun of this employee’s lack of pop culture knowledge, and reducing this woman to a mistake that dredges up her unfortunate past.
At first these jokes were subtle, just a way to keep morale up in a room of difficult discussion, but as they continued, they became the crux of the speech. Father Greg made it apparent that he still sees himself as a God-like person who came and changed the lives of the less fortunate, and now cracks jokes at their expense.
For example, Boyle recalled a time that an employee was sitting in his office, talking about how blessed he was for getting his first paycheck. This man said, “And I only have one person to thank for this,” and Boyle said how he blushed and thought to himself, “Oh, this man is going to thank me,” but then the man said, “God.”
Boyle started laughing at himself saying “God, right of course” in a mocking tone. But as the audience laughed, Boyle continued to allude to the fact that he was comparable to God, as he was the person who changed this man’s life.
But Boyle is not the only one at fault here.
The audience bought into the entire thing. Laughing at the expense of the people Father Greg helps rehabilitate shows how our community is missing the point. This positive reinforcement only encouraged Boyle to say these hurtful things. No one called him out for the content of his talk or his tone of privilege. It is easy to laugh when someone makes a joke, but if the content is unjust, then those laughing are the problem too.
Since Father Greg’s event, there has been little talk about what was wrong with this speech. Students accepted what he said and moved on, since they do not have to deal with poverty and addiction on a daily basis. But as an institution, we should be advocating for political correctness, and stand up for the fair treatment of all, especially those who cannot be there to defend themselves. Continuing the conversation is vital in creating a more accepting community.