FULL DISCLOSURE: I teared up nearly every time I read from this book.
Not many book reviews start this way, I know. But not many books are like Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart.
Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has found holy ground in East Los Angeles’ violent and destitute projects, in the city known for decades as “the gang capital of the world.” He founded Homeboy Industries, a ground-breaking initiative that has employed thousands of gang-related youth, providing job training and the opportunity for these young people to have what they want most: a life.
The gang-intervention model of Homeboy Industries, which is an umbrella organization for numerous spin-off businesses as well as an array of social services, is worthy of a book itself—but this isn’t it. If you’re looking for that story, see Celeste Fremon’s G-Dog and the Homeboys (originally titled Father Greg and the Homeboys), which I reviewed in the November-December 1995 Sojourners.
Tattoos on the Heart isn’t so much about practical strategies to end gang violence as it is the seemingly impractical pastoral ministry of “trusting the slow work of God.” Boyle devotes his first, long-awaited book to describing God’s boundless compassion and incarnating it through jaw-dropping stories.
I grew up on the same city streets Boyle writes about, and I’ve known many lost young people. But that isn’t why his book made me cry. In Tattoos on the Heart, Boyle extends a rare compassion to gang members and all others who have been cast out by society. But he doesn’t do so naïvely. He writes again and again of “kids I love killing kids I love”—heartbreaking situations most of us would find hard to even imagine.
Dolores Mission, the barrio church where Boyle was pastor, welcomed anybody who was in need—gang members, drug addicts, the homeless, and the undocumented. Boyle says the church became “a Who’s Who of everybody who was nobody.” As you might imagine, this didn’t always sit so well with some who prefer their church experience to be more orderly.
“You know,” a well-to-do former parishioner told Boyle, “this used to be a church.”
“You know,” Boyle countered, “most people around here think it’s finally a church.”
Jesus, writes Boyle, “makes a beeline to the outcasts and chooses, in them, to go where love has not yet arrived. His ways aren’t our ways, but they sure could be.”
By offering gang-related youth and other outcasts an opportunity for new life, regardless of where they’ve come from or what they’ve done, Boyle and the mothers of the barrio (the fathers are nearly all absent) seek to make their church and Homeboy Industries a community of unconditional love. “Gangs are bastions of conditional love,” writes Boyle, “one false move and you find yourself outside.” Community, he says, “will always trump gang any day.”
Sadly, while the business side of Homeboy Industries is self-sufficient, the counseling and rehabilitation of gang-related youth isn’t. In May, Homeboy Industries had to lay off the bulk of its social services employees because of a $5 million shortfall, creating a huge hole in the heart of the barrio. Some services are continuing with staff working on a volunteer basis.
The emotionally churning stories offered in Tattoos on the Heart take us through the human lifecycle of fall/grace/redemption/repeat again and again. If this sounds like your mom’s washing machine, it’s meant to. Reading this book is a spiritually cleansing experience that won’t leave you the same.
The compassion Boyle writes of is so deep and wide and strong that nobody is ever beyond its reach. I cried when I read this book, because it’s not just about the healing of gang members. Tattoos on the Heart welcomes all of us to join in the “no matter whatness” of God’s unconditional love.