Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest who lives in Los Angeles. He has dedicated his life to one of the groups that most of us have long since written off: gang members. Tattoos on the Heart is his book.
I started the book expecting a chronological autobiography focused on Homeboy Industries, the non-profit business/ministry Boyle set up to help young gang members leave the gang lifestyle and learn self-respect via unconditional love and a strong work ethic. Instead, and much more powerfully, Tattoos on the Heart is a set of vignettes, each focused on one or two particular individuals, so that readers like me who have always just seen "gang member: dangerous, scary, stay away!" might see people instead-- young men and women entrapped in a lifestyle that will inevitably end in their early deaths.
Boyle says with regards to his own work: "If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than others."
With a "no matter what" kind of love, Boyle invests his life in the lives of these people whom the rest of us usually see as beyond help-- and undeserving of it. He simply meets them where they are, learning their names and stories, letting them know that there is a way out of the gangs, but it must be their decision to take that chance. If they do, Homeboy Industries will remove their gang tattoos, find them places to live, employ them or find them employment, and teach them how to work, earn and wisely use their money. "Here is what we seek," says Boyle: "a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it."
Boyle admits that this is extremely hard to do. "Kids I love killing [other] kids I love. There is nothing neat in carving a space for both in [my] compassion." He does not close his eyes and pretend what gang members do is ok-- but he sees them, boys and girls made in the image of God-- as far more important than the things they do to themselves and one another. To read this book was, for me, a challenge to learn to see as Father Boyle sees.
A couple of eye-opening (and heart-opening) things:
Many of these kids, when asked their names or where they are from, will respond in surprise, "Me?" They are simply astonished that anyone would care enough to want to know. In their own minds they are as worthless and already-written-off as the rest of society sees them. To have someone simply want to know who they are is often the first step for them in realizing they are too valuable to stay in the gang life-trap, that they are worth their own efforts to begin anew.
These kids aren't like our own kids: looking forward eagerly to prom, to graduation, to marriage and college and careers. The only thing these kids plan (and plan elaborately) for is their funerals. They don't expect to live past their early 20s. They make pre-arrangements to be buried with certain items, or have certain things said at their funerals, in much the same way our own grandparents do.
How would I be different if I had grown up like this? As Boyle writes,
"It is safe for me to declare that as a teenager growing up. . . it would have been impossible for me to join a gang. That is a fact. That fact, however, does not make me morally superior to the young men and women you will meet in this book. Quite the opposite. I have come to see with greater clarity that the day simply won't come when I am more noble, have more courage, or am closer to God than the folks whose lives fill these pages."
The stories are both heart-wrenching and uplifting, with a liberal dose of gentle humor sprinkled through the pages. Reading them was another step in learning one of the things I believe Christ wants most to teach me: no one should ever be defined by their label or rendered a non-person or beyond hope. I need to learn "no-matter-what" love better than I do it now.
I owe Father Boyle my thanks for the lesson.