by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Kinship is a word Jesuit Father Greg Boyle uses often when talking about his work with urban gang members.
It is the one-word answer he gives to anyone who asks him how to repair a society broken by poverty, violence and a deep chasm between the haves and the have-nots.
“Kinship is the goal,” he said at the 10th anniversary celebration of Higher M-Pact, a Kansas City-based organization that mentors high-risk urban youth.
“The measure of our compassion lies in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them,” he said.
And Father Greg should know. He is an acknowledged expert on gang intervention and author of the New York Times best-seller “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.”
It recounted Father Greg’s experience as executive director of Homeboy Industries, an organization he founded 25 years ago when assigned to Dolores Mission Parish in Los Angeles.
He soon discovered his parish had the highest concentration of gang activity in the nation.
“So then, you either flee or you roll up your sleeves,” he said.
Father Greg chose to roll up his sleeves.
And with the help of his community, he established an elementary school, a day care program, a community organizing project (Comité Pro Paz en el Barrio) and outlets providing legitimate employment for young people.
Today, Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention and reentry program in the country and has been a model for programs throughout the world.
Higher M-Pact, an organization founded by Tyrone Flowers, has a similar mission.
Flowers was born to a teenage mother who was unable to care for him. He spent most of his childhood in foster homes, juvenile detention centers and mental health facilities.
In 1988, he was the starting point guard for Central High School in Kansas City, Mo., when a teammate confronted him after a dispute on the basketball court.
The teammate pulled a gun and shot Flowers three times — in the hand, leg, and neck.
The final shot left him paralyzed.
Despite being in a wheelchair, Flowers went on to earn a law degree from the law school at the University of Missouri-
Columbia, and began working for the Jackson County Courts.
He founded Higher M-Pact in 1993 during his first year of law school and launched it full time in 2003.
The nonprofit organization reaches out to high-risk urban youth through leadership programs, community development projects, job training, guidance and counseling.
Flowers’ wife Renee works as the organization’s executive director.
“I’ve met Tyrone and Renee and they’re extraordinary people,” Boyle told his audience at the anniversary celebration.
“After meeting with their board and talking with supporters,” he continued, “it’s obviously a program that’s quite beneficial for this city.”
Proving that point, two young men involved with Higher M-Pact, Anthony Sherrils and Shawndell Moss, gave emotional testimony to the effect it’s had on their lives.
Sherrils, the first graduate of the program, is now a student at Missouri University with a 3.9 GPA.
“[Higher M-Pact] gave me the guidance and resources I needed to be successful,” he said.
Moss, the father of a young son, said, “I take what I learned from Higher M-Pact, from school, and from the street, and I combine them.
“And I’m taking care of my son the way I should.”
All are called
In an interview before the event, Father Greg talked about how we all are called to help the less fortunate.
“None of us are called to be successful,” he said. “We’re called to be faithful — faithful to a strategy, faithful to an approach.
“Faithful to take seriously what Jesus took seriously.”
The first step, he said, is to find a program in your community like Higher M-Pact. And if you’re not comfortable alone, approach it with a group.
“I’m a firm believer in the from-below, church-based responses where you have communities saying, ‘What are we going to do?’” he said.
Father Greg believes this is the best way to follow the example of Pope Francis who wants Catholics to live the Gospel.
“You know people can go to church every Sunday and pray the rosary or do all sorts of things that are traditionally connected to the Catholic way of faith,” he said. “But what’s so refreshing about Pope Francis is all his humility.
“He’s inviting people to roll up their sleeves — including priests.”
Father Greg sees this invitation as a return to what’s important.
“People are listening to him and saying, ‘Oh, that’s why I believe. That’s why I want to follow Jesus,’” he said.
Which is exactly as it should be, he believes.
“Jesus doesn’t want a fan club,” said Father Greg. “He wants followers.”