Father Gregory Boyle is a master of the art of problem framing and reframing. He is a Jesuit priest who founded and runs Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program in Los Angeles, and this is a story about the art of his framing.
One morning during his days as pastor of Dolores Mission Church, he began the homily with a most unusual question: “What’s the church smell like?”
When his parishioners avoided eye contact, looking everywhere but at him, he asked again. “Come on, now, what’s the church smell like?”
An old man who didn’t care what people thought yelled out honestly, “Huele a patas” (It smells like feet).
You see, Dolores Mission Church had declared itself a sanctuary church for the undocumented after passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Recently-arrived undocumented men from Mexico and Central America would sleep in the church at night.
Each morning, a certain scent lingered in the church, never overwhelming but “undeniably there.” Vacuums and liberally sprinkled I Love My Carpet didn’t quite do the trick. Neither did strategically placed potpourri and Air Wick. As up to 100 men took haven in the church at night, the distinct odor of smelly feet remained in the air the next morning. Parishioners began to grumble.
Instead of lecturing his parishioners about getting their priorities in order, instead of reminding them of the church’s mission to stand with those on the margins, Fr. Boyle helped parishioners do something harder but much more effective. He helped them discover another way of looking at the problem.
Here’s how, in an excerpt from his bestselling book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion:
“Come on, now,” I throw back at them, “what’s the church smell like?”
“Huele a patas” (Smells like feet), Don Rafael booms out. He was old and never cared what people thought.
“Excellent. But why does it smell like feet?”
“Cuz many homeless men slept here last night?” says a woman.
“Well, why do we let that happen here?”
“Es nuestro compromiso” (It’s what we’ve committed to do), says another.
“Well, why would anyone commit to do that?”
“Porque es lo que haria Jesús.” (It’s what Jesus would do.)
“Well, then…what’s the church smell like now?”
A man stands and bellows, “Huele a nuestro compromiso” (it smells like commitment).
The place cheers.
Guadalupe waves her arms wildly, “Huele a rosas” (smells like roses).
The packed church roars with laughter and a newfound kinship that embraced someone else’s odor as their own. The stink in the church hadn’t changed, only how the folks saw it.
Framing a problem in new ways — reframing — can make a monumental difference in the discovery of insights and solutions that would otherwise have been invisible.
Masterful problem framing is an uncommon art, yet a learnable one. Gregory Boyle’s book is chock full of beautiful, moving examples.