The National Catholic Review
J. Peter Nixon

Nothing stops a bullet like a job” is the motto of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the United States. Founded in 1986 by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, Homeboy offers job training, tattoo removal and employment to Los Angeles gang members who are seeking to leave gang life behind. Boyle and his work have been featured in newspapers and magazines across the country.

Boyle—a k a Father Greg, G-Dog, or simply G—has written a new book about his experiences entitled Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. The book is less about Boyle, though, than about his “homies,” the young men and women who come to Homeboy in search of a better life. The result is a set of stories that will stir many emotions. They will leave you dumbfounded at the power of love and compassion to break down high walls built by anger and pain.

Early in the book, we encounter a young gang member named Scrappy. Assigned to do community service in Boyle’s parish by his probation officer, Scrappy spends his hours snarling at the priest. Five years later, Boyle is preaching at the funeral of a gang member and suggests that the best way to honor his memory is to embrace peace and forgiveness. Scrappy, a close friend of the deceased, walks to the front of the church to confront Boyle and then stalks out the side door. Three years after that, Scrappy pulls a gun on Boyle when he tries to break up a fight.

When Scrappy walks into Boyle’s office years later, the reader can be forgiven for thinking that this is not going to end well. Instead, there is laughter, then tears, then a confession: “I’ve spent twenty years building a reputation for myself and now I regret that I even have one.” Similar words could have been placed on the lips of almost all the gang members whose stories Boyle recounts.

Sometimes, though, even a job can’t stop a bullet. Just a few months after Scrappy started work on Homeboy’s graffiti removal crew, he was killed while rolling a paintbrush over some graffiti in Boyle Heights.

Too many of Boyle’s stories end this way. After a while the reader begins to pray that these young men and women will live to enjoy the fruit of their changed lives. Boyle—who has buried 168 of his homies—no doubt prays that prayer as well. It raises the question asked by many gang members who are considering a change in life, “What’s the point of doing good if this can happen to you?”

Boyle agrees that it is a good question, worthy of an answer. He cites Julian of Norwich’s observation that life is a struggle to discover that we are “clothed in God’s goodness.” Once these young men and women make that discovery, nothing can be the same again. “What is death compared to knowing that?” writes Boyle, “No bullet can pierce it.”

All too often, though, the greatest risks these young people face come from within, the bad choices made from a set of limited options. Boyle admits that he sometimes struggles against the despair inherent in “watching the kids you love cooperate in their own demise.” Nevertheless, he hopes the reader will “stand in awe of what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

Despite the fact that Homeboy Industries has been lauded as a national model in its effectiveness, Boyle doubts that what is ultimately a ministry can be assessed in those terms. “I’m not opposed to success,” he writes. “I just think we should accept it only if it is a byproduct of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.”

What is needed, suggests Boyle, is not another set of well-intentioned interventions targeted at “them.” Instead, we need a radical commitment to re-weave the bonds of communion that have been eroded by our insistence on drawing lines that exclude: race, class, neighborhood, gang membership. “The margins don’t get erased by simply insisting that the powers-that-be erase them,” he writes. Those powers “will only be moved to kinship when they observe it. Only when we see a community where the outcast is valued and appreciated.”

Which is why, in the end, Tattoos on the Heart is a profound work of theology. More powerfully than any treatise, it reveals a God who “dines with tax collectors and sinners,” and leaves the 99 sheep to find the one who has strayed; a God who forms one people from a group of fractious tribes and one church from a motley collection of Jews and Gentiles.

“When the vastness of God meets the restriction of our own humanity, words can’t hold it,” writes Boyle. “The best we can do is find the moments that rhyme with this expansive heart of God.” At Homeboy Industries, it is clear that such moments are far from rare.

Listen to America's interview with Fr. Greg Boyle.

Peter Nixon is a volunteer with Kairos Prison Ministry in Northern California and a graduate of the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley.

Comments

Beryl Newman | 10/8/2010 - 3:08pm
Last May 17th issue of America featured Peter Nixon's review of the book "Tattoos on the heart" by Fr Gregory Boyle.  I subsequently read the book and was moved by it.  Recently, during corneal transplant surgery, I was diverted to hear my surgeon animatedly discussing the book with his assistants.  He had read it twice and found it so impressive that he had arranged for a group of friends to meet at his home to discuss the wealth of issues it had raised. I mentioned that I had read it and agreed with his view.  He wanted to know how i had heard of it, if i knew Father Boyle and so on.  I told him I had neen loaned the book by a friend who had received a copy from a nun in a Cistercian monastery, and who had remembered certain experiences I had with a pastor who ran a kind of unofficial ministry to parolees and street people (who eventually caused his tragic death) and thought I would be interested. This sparked an enthusiastic response from my surgeon. I have the greatest trust and confidence in the remarkable skill of this man, but the thought did cross my mind  "Hey, watch it.  This is my eye you're working on!" When I returned home a couple of days later with 20/30 vision in my affected eye - a miracle to an 87 year-old - I found an article in the surrent issue of The Southern Cross, diocesan newspaper of San Diego. which featured Felipe, one of Fr. Boyle's homeboys, now something of a minor celebrity for the social work he is doing, who credited Boyle and The Homeboys Industries with his remarkable conversion. It  seemed rather more than a coincidence and i am wondering if, as my sight continues to heal, I may see just what message is being sent.
Ann Turner | 7/14/2010 - 12:59pm
I found "Tattoos On the Heart" to be one of the most profound and transforming books I've read in recent years.  Yes, it is painful to read of the deaths of Fr. G's "homies," and the sudden, random violence which takes them.  But perhaps because there is this substrata of darkness, the light is even brighter and more miraculous.  Resurrection IS possible-true change IS possible, and we need to all hold this in our hearts.  This is a book to take to bed with you; to put under the seat of your car; to tuck into your backpack or purse to read in lines.  Except people might see tears leaving tracks down your cheeks....this book brings me back to my own deep humanity and God's infinite compassion.
Beth Cioffoletti | 6/13/2010 - 4:57pm
I love this book!  I read just a little bit every night, comforted by the compassionate God that "G" brings to the homies, and drawn to those on the margins of society so that I, too, might meet my own wound and be healed.