No “Us and Them”: Father Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart

January 28th, 2014 by Steve Lehman · No Comments · Uncategorized

Tattoos on the HeartAnd we are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.    —William Blake

We’ve all heard the stories of horrific gang violence in urban areas across the nation, and no city has been more wracked with that relentless bloodshed than the “gang capital of the world,” Los Angeles. It’s a phenomenon that has confounded the concerted efforts of law enforcement and city officials for decades. What can be done to stop the carnage? More and better-armed policing? More prisons and harsher sentencing? Or should society just seal them off and let the problem take care of itself?

In Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, the priest of Dolores Mission Church, located in the poorest parish in the archdiocese of the LA—which is, not coincidentally, in the heart of the highest concentration of gang activity in the city—has a different suggestion, one that he has been living for over twenty-five years. He calls it “kinship.”

Father Gregory Boyle—“G” or “G-dog” to the young men and women of the Pico-Aliso housing projects and their surrounds—became pastor of Dolores Mission in 1986. At the time there was a crucial decision to be made: barricade the church against the violence, drugs, and despair of the neighborhood or engage with its residents. For Greg Boyle, the answer was obvious, but the parishioners had to come to their own reckoning. When two lay leaders stood at the parish meeting and said, “We help gang members at this parish because it is what Jesus would do,” the matter was settled.

The Homegirl CafeTattoos on the Heart is the incredible story of what followed: first a school for local kids who had been kicked out of every other and had nowhere to go; then the purchase and refurbishment of an abandoned bakery (with financial backing from a big-time Hollywood agent) to provide jobs for gang members when it became clear none of the nearby industries had any intention of hiring them. The Homeboy Bakery was the start of what would develop over the next quarter century into Homeboy Industries, where members of different gangs, a “United Nations” of gangs, would engage together in a variety of Homeboy programs and businesses ranging from a silk-screening operation to a tortilla stand in Grand Central Market to The Homegirl Café.* They now provide tattoo removal, solar-panel installation training and certification, and legal, educational, mental health, substance abuse, and domestic abuse services to thousands—yes, thousands—of former and current gang members. One of their sayings is, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”Steve at Homegirl Cafe

And for all of this, the central unifying principle, the linchpin, is that one word, that one idea: kinship.

The heart and soul of this audiobook are Boyle’s stories about the young men and women with whom he has shared the past two and a half decades: the traumatized and the discarded, the perpetrators of violence and its victims. Tattoos on the Heart is an inspiring and moving story, a story of what can happen when even the most marginalized are given just a little hope. (“Hopeful kids do not join gangs,” Boyle points out. “Gang membership is the lethal absence of hope.”) In short, miracles can occur—there’s really no other way to put it. The successes are many, and they are, as the subtitle suggests, proof of the transforming power of compassion. But there are also stories of heart-breaking tragedy and great sadness. For while Homeboy Industries helps thousands of young people leave gang life for jobs, education, and to raise their families in a healthy way that they never experienced themselves growing up, many don’t make it. Father Boyle has officiated at more funerals than one would care to count. But the reason we feel those stories as tragic, the reason they break our hearts and bring us to tears is simple: in Father Boyle’s stories the gang members are no longer faceless pariahs but human beings, our brothers and sisters and some mothers’ children, and our hearts naturally want to reach out to them. Kinship.

Kinship for Father Greg isn’t a motto, it’s a theology. He paraphrases Mother Theresa that “the problem in the world today is we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.” Boyle’s vision is that “we are called to create a community of kinship such that God Himself might recognize it.” That’s what he believes Jesus has asked us to do, and that means understanding that “your truth is my truth is a gang member’s truth,” that “there is no us and them, just us.”

“There’s an idea,” Boyle says, “that’s at the root of all that’s wrong with the world. It’s that there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives. The question is: how do we stand against that?” Tattoos on the Heart is the story of how Boyle and his homies stand against it; how we do so is up to us. But this audiobook can help point the way.

Father Boyle does hundreds of speaking engagements each year; he gives homilies, performs masses, and officiates at any number of church events—in prisons, halfway houses, and, sometimes, in churches. He is a seasoned speaker and story-teller, but not a professional audiobook narrator. However, I can honestly say that in my experience, there has never been a book better and more affectingly recorded by its author. The warmth of his personality, the unsentimental sincerity of his beliefs and mission, and the unvarnished love he has for his compañeros from the ‘hood come through in every sentence he speaks. You will laugh and, if your soul is even halfway intact, you will cry, probably dozens of times, both in joy and in sorrow. But that’s just the result of the kinship to which Father Boyle introduces us: we hear his stories, we feel the love and respect there, and through those stories we are privileged to look into the eyes of the homies of Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. And it is in their eyes that we come to see and understand their innate worth—not “them,” but “us”—and in so doing, recognize our own.

Steve Father Greg Gladys

I had the good fortune of meeting Father Boyle with colleague Gladys Jones at one of his speaking engagements.

I confess, I’m not usually big on religion, but I have to say, if this is religion, I’ll take two. One reviewer called Tattoos on the Heart a spiritual masterpiece. It is that—and more.

*That’s me in front of The Homegirl Café, smack in the middle of LA Dodgers territory, wearing my St. Louis Cardinals cap. That’s a potentially stupid thing to do anywhere in LA, but nobody said a word. They just smiled and served me my Homegirl Classic Revueltos, an egg scramble with onions, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, spinach, and a warm morita salsa, with a side of black beans and tortillas. And it was delicious.

Tags: ·······

No Comments so far ↓

There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment