I had just finished reading Father Gregory Boyle S.J.’s penetratingly spiritual, truly hope-filled and uplifting book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. It had made my own, often enough alas, shriveled spirit soar and evoked genuine desires for greater compassion, to feel the imprint of God’s boundless love as a seal—even a kind of tattoo—on my heart. Then, I read the heartbreaking news in The Los Angeles Times that Boyle’s justly famous Homeboy Industries were five million dollars in arrears and Boyle had to let two-thirds of his 400 workers go. Boyle who claims in his book that “the highest form of sanctity is to live in hell and not lose hope” had to confess that “Hope has left the [Homeboy] building a little bit.”
Greg Boyle (whom gang members affectionately dub G) started his gang re-habilitation project over twenty years ago. He had, previously, been the pastor of the Jesuit parish in East Los Angeles, Dolores Mission, where drive by gang related shootings were and continue to be common. Boyle has presided over 168 funerals of young men gunned down by rival gangs. Homeboy Industries takes as its slogan: “Nothing Stops a Bullet like a Job” and proclaims “Jobs not Jail." Over the years, Homeboy Industries (which includes a Homeboy Bakery, a Home girl Café and a Homeboy silk-screen factory) have offered counseling, gang-related tattoo removals and, most of all, jobs to take, over the years, thousands of gang members off the streets. Remarkably, for someone who remembers that Jesus preached "love your enemies," Homeboy brings together rival, enemy gang members and forges friendships, alliances and a "truce of God" on them. Having such avowed enemies actually work together is nothing short of a miracle.
Boyle claims of his deeply moving Tattoos on the Heart that it is not a memoir of his twenty years of working with gangs nor a how-to book to deal with gangs. Boyle uses his touching stories of gang members to help us put a human face on them, not as some tourists into a kind of exotic foreign land, but as a way to recognize our own wounds. Boyle has the soul of a poet and sprinkles, aptly, throughout the book, pithy citations from the poetry of Hafez, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnell, Jack Gilbert. Some samples include, from Mary Oliver, the admonition that “All things are inventions of holiness, some more rascally than others." From Kinnell: “Sometimes it is necessary to re-teach a thing its loveliness.” From Gilbert: “The pregnant heart is driven to hopes that are the wrong size for this world."
Tattoos of the Heart is modest in its claims for success. Boyle knows his projects have represented a tiny drop in a pretty deep bucket. Clearly, Boyle has come to love the young gang members in his neighborhood. He wants us to learn how to bear the largeness of God. God, he claims, looks beyond our faults and sees our needs. We need to move from the "one false move and I will get you" God to the "no matter what--I love you" God. Alas, we tend to create a small, parochial God in our own image which makes it hard for us to recognize and rejoice that we are clothed in God’s goodness. God beholds us and she is smiling. Luckily, the God of surprises seems an unwilling participant in our efforts to pigeonhole him. Faced with broken humanity, we are called to allow our hearts to be broken by the very thing that breaks the heart of God. As Boyle puts it: “We need the disruption of categories that lead us to abandon the difficult, the disagreeable and the least likely to go very far.”
At one point, Boyle who has had to go hat in hand to foundations and donors to raise money for his important and hopeful enterprises laments the new emphasis on quick and quantifiable results-based philanthropy. He knows that God’s work is often slow. He cites Mother Teresa: “ We are not called to be successful but faithful.” Such fidelity mirrors the strategy of Jesus which was not centered on taking the right stand on issues but rather in standing in the right place.
Boyle has become a sort of Los Angeles icon. He has been frequently interviewed on National Public Radio or on television about his work. Some influential politicians and high ranking officials in the Los Angeles Police Department have learned from him that mere anti-crime measures which do not look to education, counseling (and getting jobs!) for gang members will not, in the long pull, be effective. Boyle also has his critics who accuse him of being an apologist for gang members. Reading his book, his apology—if that is the right word—is never for violence, never for crime, but for the potentialities of gang members to become law-abiding, hard working husbands and fathers. His apology is for the possibility of grace, even in the hearts of hardened gang members and the largeness of God. For him, the role of a priest vis a vis such outcasts is that of Jesus: Jesus ate with, conversed with and called to integrity the outcasts of his society.
For almost ten years I used to go weekly to Boyle’s neighborhood where I taught English as a second language to—mainly undocumented—immigrants who ate and slept in a Dolores Mission shelter program. I remember, vividly, the many nights I could not drive anywhere near the church because of police blockades due to gang-related drive-by shootings ( shootings, often enough, which miss the intended mark and have killed children and innocent by-standers). How to build hope in a world of poverty and unemployment and gang violence? Anyone who has visited Dolores Mission vividly sees how such hope can be and is kindled and kept alive.
But hopeful and successful as Homeboy Industries is, it can seem a hard sell. As Boyle put it, when he had to shut down much of Homeboys’ activities, (remember that Homeboys’ operations serve more than 12,00 gang members or former gang members a year): “If these were puppies or little kids, we wouldn’t be in this trouble. But they are tattooed gang members with records. So, I think a lot of people love this place but not the folks who can write the big checks, the “'Save the Hollywood sign' kinds of checks”.
I was talking to my pastor the other day about how profoundly moved I was by reading Tattoos of the Heart. He told me that he has been surprised by the number of wealthy friends of his—none of them obvious bleeding hearts or liberal—who also have recounted their being deeply touched by the book. Boyle is not some ideologue. He invites us to a place where hope and fidelity to God’s largess and compassion also move us. I have been fervently praying for some donor to step up to help the program re-group its projects.
I know—much to my startled surprise—I wept at times reading Boyle’s book. It reminded me that Jesus’ injunctions about "peace," "justice to the poor in our land" are not mere airy platitudes. They demand painstaking, often heart-breaking, effort and tireless work. Key to that happening is what Boyle insists on: “Allowing our hearts to be broken by the very thing that breaks the heart of God.”
John Coleman, S.J.