It’s a beautiful thing when words can make you cry.
Father Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart did it to me over and over again.
For those who do not know, Father Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, the nationally-acclaimed project that provides former gang members with all manner of services, from tattoo removal to a job to therapy to legal help.
The book is peppered with vignettes from his nearly quarter century working in Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods – a period during which he has buried more than 175 gang members killed by rivals.
A skilled raconteur and deft writer with a gift for dialogue and telling detail, Boyle takes the reader through many of the moments that have both wounded and healed during his casting his lot with the poor.
In Tattoos we meet former gang members trying to heal from unspeakable child abuse and create a different way for themselves and their children. In one story, for instance, Boyle writes about a young man who gets his first job ever as a rat at Chuck E. Cheese. The suit is hot and uncomfortable, and kids poke at him constantly, but the former gang member keeps working because his son will be born in two months and he wants his boy to grow up with a working man for a father.
Homeboy Industries began with a bakery in which the workers had to share space and time with former enemies, including those who killed fellow gang and even family members.
Boyle describes two such workers between which something so fearsome had passed that they refused to shake each other’s hands and worked together in tense silence for months.
Yet when one of the members was beaten beyond all recognition, the former enemy asked Boyle if he could donate some blood to him.
Many of the stories are drenched in pain and the undeniable reality that for far too many of these young men and women, life will end too soon and too young. In some cases, the wounds seem to come from, or to bring home, the consequences of their actions.
Boyle tells the story of two brothers who danced around, and ultimately joined, the gang life. A shooting near their home did not kill them, but did claim the life of their younger brother who had no affiliation.
Other former gang members are gunned down in daylight and without provocation. In one such case, a young man who had worked 20 years to gain a reputation he ultimately concluded he did not want was killed while removing graffiti from the community.
These false starts and incomplete efforts at redemption add a deeper level to the suffering so many in the community endure. Boyle writes openly about the question of success, drawing on the words of others to conclude that it lies not so much in the outcome, but the effort.
Deeply literate and spiritual, Tattoos also drops in liturgy with quotes from writers ranging from Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron to poet Mary Oliver to Pierre Teillard de Chardin. These excerpts cast the specific stories Boyle recounts in a larger purpose of seeking to restore all of God’s creatures to their intact, beautiful, shame-free selves, and to urge everyone not to segregate themselves from the outcasts among us.
In one such case, he writes about the early days of his church in Dolores Mission, when he had started to welcome homeless people into the parish. The smell finally got to the point when he felt he had to address it.
He asked the parishioners what the church smells like.
An elderly gentleman answered loudly, “Like feet.”
While not denying the answer, Boyle then lead his congregation through the process of identifying the source of the odor and the reason for their presence in the church.
He repeated the question.
This time, the answer was different.
“It smells like our commitment to Jesus,” one woman answered.
“It smells like roses,” said another.
These tender moments of connection and kinship not only keep Boyle going, they provide the backdrop for his description of the evolution in his approach to his work.
As a younger priest, he repeatedly drove his bicycle around the housing projects where he worked and lived, intervening in conflicts and even mediating truces between gangs.
In addition to keeping an unsustainable pace that ultimately burned him out, he also came to conclude that the negotiations legitimized the gangs.
That process of growth and change continues.
In the time he spent with us on Tuesday, Father Boyle told us that he now feels uncomfortable with the expression he used to champion, “Nothing beats a bullet like a job.”
At this point, he said, he has arrived at the conclusion that he is seeking to help the thousands of young men and women who enter Homeboy Industries’ doors transform their identities from where they are to the potential spouses, parents, workers and contributors they have within them waiting to emerge.
It’s a glorious vision that has materialized often enough, and with enjoy joy, humor and connection along the way, that Boyle concluded at one point that he at times has to sit back and soak in the good fortune he has to lead the life he has chosen.
Tattoos on the Heart articulates that vision in a way that provokes outrage at the conditions into which these young people are born, moves the reader to tears at their resilience, heart and all-too-frequent early demises, and inspires us to consider what we can do to make a small but real contribution to this and other causes.