Lessons from a Homie

by gary-foote on May 16, 2011

Yesterday I met a man that greatly impacted my life. For the sake of his privacy, I’m going to call him “Frank,” which isn’t his real name.  Frank works for an amazing organization in Los Angeles California called, “Homeboy Industries.” Homeboy Industries’ mission statement is, “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” If you visit Homeboy Industries or their website you will find out that “Homeboy assists at-risk, recently released, and formerly gang involved youth to become contributing members of their communities through a variety of services in response to their multiple needs. Homeboy Industries offers free programs — including counseling, education, tattoo removal, substance abuse and addiction assistance, job training and job placement — enable young people to redirect their lives” (www.homeboy-industries.org).

Frank is a rehabilitated gang member. He gave some others and me a tour of Homeboy Industries and was very proud to share with us how this organization was saving lives. At the end of our tour (which lasted a little over an hour) we asked Frank what his story was. Frank shared with us that he came from an abusive home where his father had abused him, his mother, and his siblings. Eventually, his father left making the situation a bit better. Unfortunately, Frank’s father returned and the abuse started again. At this point, Frank was 12 years old and decided to fight back as best he could. His father told Frank’s mother that she had to make a decision between having him or Frank in the house. Frank’s mother chose Frank’s father and put Frank out on the street at age 12. Frank found some solace in his grandparents, but eventually they were only able to provide him a roof over his head and not much more. Frank turned to gang banging as an answer to the many struggles he faced. For his 16th birthday, Frank’s mom showed up and had bought him a car to try to make up for the decision she had made to put him on the streets so many years ago. Sadly, Frank accepted the car and started getting more involved with gang banging because he now had a way to travel greater distances.

One night, Frank was out with his girlfriend and another friend who was in his gang. As they were driving, Frank’s friend asked Frank to stop the car. Frank pulled over, his friend pulled out a gun, and before anything could be done Frank’s friend shot and killed someone who was on the street. Frank, his girlfriend, and the shooter fled the scene. Soon after the shooting, Frank’s girlfriend went to the police and told what had happened. The police found Frank and arrested him. After the arrest, Frank was questioned for the information on who the shooter was. Frank would not the name of the other gang member. Because of his refusal to cooperate, Frank was sentenced to life in prison. Every so often, Frank would be brought up for probation, would be asked to identify who the shooter was,, would deny to tell who the shooter was, and would be sent back to his cell. This process went on for 29 years! Finally, Frank was asked to once again identify the shooter and he decided to respond differently to the request. Rather than saying “no,” Frank said, “You always ask me the name of the shooter. I always say ‘no.’ But, you have never asked me why I won’t tell you his name.” At this, the examiner asked said, “Okay Frank. Why won’t you give us his name?” Frank replied,” I won’t give his name to you because I know that if I snitch on him someone in my family will end up dead. That’s how it works on streets.” The examiner was floored. For 29 years Frank had been jailed because it was assumed that he refused to cooperate with the police, but in reality, he was trying to protect his family. The examiner shared that information with “the powers that be” and Frank was paroled.

Twenty nine years. Twenty nine years! This man was imprisoned for 29 years because he was never asked the right question. He now calls Homeboy Industries his home and has a smile that can light up the darkest of rooms. Frank also shared with me that one of the many mottos of Homeboy Industries is to “care straight.” He said that there is nothing that a gangbanger is afraid of so “scare straight” will never work for them, but when someone truly loves them with the love of God hearts and lives can be changed.

Hearing Frank’s story was deeply moving and compelling for me. I had to look back at my life in Catholic youth ministry and think about the times where I missed the opportunity to “care straight” an at risk teen. I think about the times when I’ve been invited to speak at parishes, Catholic youth conferences, or lead a Catholic youth retreat and I may have not asked the right questions to the teens. Although I work with Catholic youth all of the time, I needed the reminder that I still need to be their student. I need to truly understand their reasoning for doing or not doing something and not just make assumptions based on the actions of others or I might be just as guilty as the system that kept Frank in prison for so long assuming that he was trying to fight law enforcement when in reality he was just trying to protect his family. There are a lot of things that I learned from Frank, and I hope that some of the lessons that he has taught me might bless you and your ministry.

 

In Christ,

Gary Foote

 

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