On the last day of his life, Miguel Gomez reported to work early. He had been on the job for only a few months, ever since he was released from prison and came to the Rev. Gregory Boyle for help, swearing he wanted to be a new man.
The priest had his doubts. "Uh-oh, trouble," Boyle recalls thinking this past spring when Gomez walked into his community center in Boyle Heights, a beleaguered barrio in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers. But Gomez, 34, wept that day and said he had wasted too many years running with gangs. Boyle assigned him to a cleaning crew paid to remove gang graffiti around the neighborhood on weekday mornings.
Gomez was spreading white paint on a warehouse wall at 5:30 a.m. when a gunman, upset to see the scrawl erased, opened fire.
"Miguel was the 126th one I've buried," Boyle said.
So it goes in the badlands of Los Angeles, where blood from an epidemic of gang violence keeps on flowing.
News of Gomez's death late last month passed without much notice. Local television stations kept their cameras focused on freeway car chases, as usual, and civic leaders were preoccupied with "another Rodney King" -- shorthand in L.A. for a police beating of a suspect that gets caught on videotape.
Gomez was just another casualty in street warfare that has been raging here for many years. The city seems weary of the struggle to stop it.
Nearly 750 people have been killed in gang mayhem in Los Angeles since the start of 2002. The death toll this year is on a pace to exceed last year's tally.
"A lot of people,'' said Robert Mejia, 21, a former juvenile offender who knew Gomez, "have just given up.''
Not Boyle. He was back at work hours after Gomez's killing.
In a room filled with tattooed young Latinos wearing oversize athletic jerseys and baseball caps backward, the Jesuit priest is hard to miss. He is a trim, balding Irish guy near 50, sporting a plaid shirt and a gray beard. They all call him "G dog.''
He has no illusions about his mission. He is not saving the world, not even the neighborhood. But any victory here matters.
"We're not called to be successful,'' he says. "We're called to be faithful. It's about finding an approach you believe in and clinging to it.''
For more than a decade, that has meant showing up at a storefront he calls Homeboy Industries. It is a refuge in a community pulsing with hardship and menace.
Boyle Heights is one of the poorest and most densely populated parts of Los Angeles. As Mexican music blares from passing traffic and tenement windows, young Latinos with shaved heads flaunt their gang colors and signs on the smoggy streets. Joining a gang is a pervasive rite of passage that often becomes a way of life.
Police say about two dozen gangs with more than 4,000 members stalk the neighborhood. And that is just a small fraction of the gang presence in the city.
Members of nearly 150 gangs have come through Boyle's door over the years. Gunshot wounds have left some of them limping or in wheelchairs. Those who stick with his program have no choice but to work alongside or aid onetime enemies.
Homeboy Industries runs a bakery, a silkscreen shop and a graffiti-removal patrol. Boyle regularly employs scores of former gang members. Hundreds of others receive job training or guidance about severing ties to gangs. The center also removes gang tattoos. The waiting list for that free service has 1,000 names.
"He ministers to the outcasts," said Los Angeles Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who represents Boyle Heights. "Instead of walking across the street, he engages these young people."
Boyle has earned the respect of gang members because he has learned to speak fluent Spanish and has made a habit of riding his bicycle through the neighborhood's public housing developments. He also talks to them in their own slang. "Hey, dog, leave me your information so I can call you," he told a young Latino man who dropped by the center for assistance one recent afternoon.
At times, Boyle has been accused of coddling gang members, but he scoffs at that charge. "I am not an apologist for gangs," he says. "But I don't think we're going to solve this if all we ever do is demonize these guys. The reason they join gangs is always the same -- it's a lethal absence of hope."
He keeps words from the Gospel of Matthew framed on his office wall: "For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in.''
Charity never interested Miguel Gomez. Boyle had known him for 20 years. "He was always in and out of trouble," the priest recalled after the shooting. "He was a hardheaded guy.''
Boyle was startled to see Gomez again this spring. He had been in prison for a long time. "He sat down and said, 'I've spent 20 years building a reputation, and now I regret I have one,' " Boyle recalled. "He said, 'Now what do I do? I only know how to sell drugs. I only know how to wash my clothes in the sink of my cell.' Then he started to cry and cry."
Boyle told Gomez that if he wanted to work, he should come back to the center before sunrise and join a crew that scrubs away gang graffiti.
"He never missed a day," Boyle said.
Gomez was his first employee killed on the job. There was not much time to mourn his death. Homeboy Industries almost always has a full house in need. One recent afternoon, the place was bustling with young customers tempted or desperate to forsake gang life.
Boyle was in the middle of it all. "A lot of this is triage," he said.
A lanky one-armed former gang member named Hugo, wearing baggy denim shorts that sagged to his ankles, kept bounding into Boyle's office with paperwork that had to be signed. Boyle met him in a hospital a few years ago, angry and drunk.
A young woman stopped in to say goodbye and ask for a blessing. Boyle clasped his hands and prayed beside her in Spanish.
The phone rang. It was a reporter asking what he thought of a new city plan to ban alleged gang members from doing almost anything together in public, another attempt to disrupt recruiting.
"It's not how people join gangs," Boyle said.
As he spoke, he flashed a peace sign to a young man on his way out and looked around the busy room for signs of strife.
Then two short, swaggering teenagers walked in. Boyle knew one of them -- "He's a knucklehead" -- but not the other. He watched them with unease as they waited at the center's empty front counter.
"Their enemies are in here," he said. "But I don't think they'll disrespect the place."
He kept watching. "Maybe I should get them started," Boyle said.
He left his office and approached the pair with a gentle welcome. They listened as he spoke for a minute. Then they lost their scowls and quietly took a seat.
Someone would be with them soon.
-- Rene Sanchez