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.