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Home Canadian Priest started STR8 UP after men asked for help leaving gang

Priest started STR8 UP after men asked for help leaving gang

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Father Andre Poilievre.Father Andre Poilievre.Fathers Poilievre and Boyle offer insights and testimony
By Kiply Lukan Yaworski
Prairie Messenger (CCN)

STR8 UP, a Saskatoon organization helping ex-gang members find hope and healing to become good parents, faithful partners, and responsible citizens, and Homeboy Industries, a much larger gang recovery organization based in Los Angeles, offered insights and powerful testimony of hope and healing during a conference in Saskatoon Feb. 5-6.

The founders of the two organizations, both Catholic priests, were the opening speakers at the 10,000 Healing Steps: Resilience and Community conference at TCU Place in Saskatoon, sharing a common vision of walking in friendship and compassion with those trying to turn their lives around.

Former prison chaplain Father Andre Poilievre started STR8 UP in Saskatoon after two men approached him seeking support for getting out of a gang.

Father Poilievre's STR8 UP presentation, which has now been offered in hundreds of settings in the past 12 years, included a focus on the medicine wheel and the need for every healthy human being to have a balance between body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

The purpose of life is to be physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually healthy, he said. When any part of a human person is sick or in pain, that balance is lost, and continuing suffering is the result. "But hurting people can heal," he said.

Those who come to STR8 UP for help are asked to delve into their own personal story, to determine where and how they are hurting, when it all started, what they have to face and what has to be healed, said Father Poilievre.

For most STR8 UP members, it is a long, tough journey, facing things that happened even before birth, or as a child, and often includes terrible childhood experiences of abandonment, neglect, poverty and abuse.

As teenagers, human beings begin to give back, said Father Poilievre, stressing that "you can only give back what you have." Those who have experienced pain give pain back, he said. Addictions are almost always part of the picture for those who are profoundly hurt, as they use drugs or alcohol to kill their pain.

Healing takes time, and STR8 UP members are expected to commit to a journey of at least four years and to get help from a parallel support system - whether from a councilor, a 12-step program or a spiritual leader. Finally, members are asked to work through the hurt and find a way to let it go and turn their lives around.

It is a matter of getting past the lies: "all those things that made them think they were no good, and they believed it."

Father Greg Boyle, SJ, also shared inspiring, humorous and heart-breaking stories about the history of Homeboy Industries and the lives it has touched. "All of us are a whole lot more than the worst thing we have ever done," he asserted.

Father Boyle's involvement in gang intervention and recovery began after he was appointed pastor of Dolores Mission in the housing projects of LA in 1986, an area that had the highest concentration of gang activity in the city. He and women in the parish looked for ways to address the neighbourhood problems, establishing a school to take middle-school youth who had been expelled because of their gang activity, and then trying to find "felony-friendly employers" for gang members who were seeking to turn their lives around.

With the help of a donor, Father Boyle established Homeboy Bakery in 1992 to provide a place of employment and job training, where former rival gang members worked side by side. Eventually Homeboy Industries expanded to include Homeboy Silkscreen, Homegirl CafÇ, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise, and other social enterprises, supporting the outreach and providing those much-needed transitional jobs and training for those leaving behind crime and violence.

Some 62 programs (from anger management to parenting to addictions recovery), support and counselling are offered by a number of paid mental health professionals and some 43 volunteer therapists, he said.

Homeboy Industries also offers free tattoo removal, which can help ex-gang members as they seek to shed former attachments and negative lifestyles, he said, with three lasers, 36 volunteer doctors and some 46,000 laser treatments a year. "No place on planet Earth removes more tattoos."

Too often the world has a "bad diagnosis" when considering those involved in gangs, labelling it as a problem of bad kids, or kids who are being drawn and attracted into gang life. But youth are never seeking anything when they join a gang, Father Boyle stressed. "They are always fleeing something."

He described being part of a Dr. Phil television program where the host was berating young gang members, telling them to wake up and realize that their lifestyle would eventually lead either to jail or to the grave. But Father Boyle objected: "These kids know this better than you do. They know this will lead to death or prison. And they don't care."

That profound lack of hope, fuelled by many kinds of hurt, is what lies behind the "choice" to join a gang, he stressed. "Nobody has ever met a hopeful kid that joined a gang."

To offer a "treatment plan" for those caught up in gangs, it is vital to have the right diagnosis, and recognize that fundamental need for healing, he stressed.

Father Boyle added: "We are all in need of healing: that's the truth of it. All of us are in need of healing. All of us are crying for help in one way or another. It's one of the things that in fact joins us together as members of the human family."

Citing scripture such as Christ's prayer that "you may be one" in the Gospel of John and the love of the Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles, Father Boyle asked, "How do we obliterate once and for all the illusion that we are separate?"

We are all called to be what child psychologist Alice Miller called "enlightened witnesses," Father Boyle said, "people who through your kindness and tenderness and focused, attentive, love, return people to themselves."

Father Boyle affirmed the work of STR8 UP in that work of holding a mirror up to people so that they can see the truth about themselves: "that you are exactly what God had in mind when God made you."

"Then you watch folks, especially on the margins, as they become that truth, as they inhabit that truth. No bullet can pierce it, no four walls can hold it, and death can't touch it, because it's huge," Father Boyle said. "STR8 UP's task is to dismantle the images of shame and disgrace that have got in the way, that have kept you from seeing your truth."

Citing the Acts of the Apostles, Father Boyle said: "it would seem that a measure of our health as a community may well reside in our ability to stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than to stand in judgment."

Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 08:55  

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