Take and Read: Tattoos on the Heart

This story appears in the Take and Read feature series. View the full series.
(Courtesy of Homeboy Industries)

(Courtesy of Homeboy Industries)

by Thomas P. Rausch

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Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion
by Gregory Boyle
(Free Press, 2010)

A couple of years ago, I was rushing through Los Angeles International Airport, hoping to grab a quick coffee and a scone at Starbucks before my flight. But as I entered the American Airlines concourse, what I saw was not the famous Seattle coffee concession but a Homegirl Café, busy with several Mexican-American girls waiting on the early morning commuters. Gosh, I thought to myself, Greg has created a whole industry.

My favorite book is Greg's Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, a New York Times best-selling book and named one of the Best Books of 2010 by Publishers Weekly.

Greg is Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit brother and friend, a few years behind me in the Society of Jesus. He’s known to all of Los Angeles and far beyond for his work with the "homies," the homeboys and homegirls whose lives and bodies have been so marked by the culture of violence that is the gang life of East LA.

Greg grew up in Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world, but in a very different, decidedly middle-class neighborhood. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1972 and was ordained in 1984. Originally scheduled for ministry at one of our universities, after Spanish-language studies in Bolivia and daily contact with the country's poor, he asked to be assigned to Dolores Mission, the poorest parish in the Los Angeles archdiocese in the midst of two large housing projects and some eight gangs. He was the youngest pastor in the archdiocese.

Realizing how many young lives were blunted by the gangs, he began by riding his bike through the neighborhood in the evening, trying to get to know the young people, who at first ignored him.

But gradually, as he visited them in jail or the hospital, they realized he was there for them. They started calling him "G," for Greg, or "G-Dog." In 1988, he buried his first victim of gang violence. Twenty years later, he had presided at more than 165 such funerals for young men from the neighborhood.

Tattoos on the Heart is the story of his efforts to provide jobs as a way out of gang life for these young men and women through Homeboy Industries. His favorite saying is "Nothing stops a bullet like a job."

Homeboy Industries began when a Hollywood agent came to see Greg after the death of his wife, wanting to do something to address the growing gang problem. After shooting down a number of the agent’s suggestions, none of them practical, Boyle suggested that he buy an old bakery for sale in the neighborhood. Boyle would try to bring rival gang members together, to work with each other in what he would call the Homeboy Bakery.

Soon, he had gang members arriving, looking for a job. One of them, just released from prison, arrived with “FUCK THE WORLD” tattooed on his forehead. Greg imagined him trying to get a job at McDonald's and scaring away the customers, and one of Greg's first services was a tattoo-removal program.

The stories he tells would break your heart. There was Jason, a young crack dealer, the son of two addicts, who, after rejecting a number of invitations, finally showed at Greg's office and with his help found a job. Having left his anger behind him, he eventually had a home and family, and was looking forward to his daughter's baptism. He had bought her a new dress. A week before the baptism, he was gunned down in the streets by someone from his past.

Or Luis, also a drug dealer, but one of the biggest and smartest in the community, who for years had avoided the law. After his daughter Tiffany was born, he too came to Greg, was hired to work at the bakery, and with his natural leadership ability was soon appointed foreman. He took being a father seriously, got a small apartment, the first home he had ever had, and with it a whole new life. One evening while loading his car, he was shot and killed by some gang members who found themselves in his neighborhood. As Greg said at his funeral, Luis "came to know the truth about himself and liked what he found there."

There are too many stories like those of Jason and Luis, kids whom Greg befriended, young men who through unconditional love and care discovered the truth about themselves, turned their lives around, rejoiced in their children, and looked to a future with hope.

They came from broken homes, abusive, addicted or absent parents, dysfunctional families. Lacking love and self-respect, they were burdened with shame that was situational as well as personal. You find yourself identifying with them, marveling at their humor, their resiliency, only to have them end up one more victim of the violence of the streets. Like the 16-year-old girl, pregnant, who says to Greg, "I just want to have a kid before I die." Or Benito, a funny, energetic 12-year-old killed in a drive-by.

Many do turn their lives around. Those stories are there, too.

My favorite is about Bandit, well-named for "being at home in all things illegal." He came to see Greg after a lot of time locked up for selling crack. Greg took him to a job developer, who got him an unskilled, entry-level job at a warehouse.

Fifteen years later, he calls Greg. He now runs the warehouse, has his own home, a wife and three kids. He wants Greg to bless his oldest daughter; she's not in trouble, but is going to college at Humboldt, the first in her family to do so, and wants to study forensic psychology. Greg tells Bandit how proud he is of him, and Bandit answers with tears in his eyes, "I'm proud of myself. All my life, people called me a lowlife, a bueno para nada. I guess I showed ’em."

Greg calls this the slow work of God, helping the soul to feel its worth. It is the strategy of Jesus, not centered on taking the right stand, but rather on standing in the right place -- with the outcasts and those relegated to the margins.

Boyle is an acute observer; he writes with a poetic sense, an ear for dialogue and an eye for detail. The book's title comes from a moment when he complimented a homie, trying to get him to see the goodness within. The kid responded, "Damn, G ... I'm gonna tattoo that on my heart."

The book's subtitle is The Power of Boundless Compassion, and that's what he offers. As enemies are brought together in the bakery, they work side by side and become friends, breaking down the illusion of separateness to replace it with kinship.

Boyle finds the holy in the comic and the ordinary. He meets people who are living heroic lives, like Rigo’s mother, who every Sunday takes seven buses to visit him in prison while he serves his time. Rigo's father used to beat him, once with a pipe.

G brings a depth of spiritual wisdom to the book, citing saints and mystics of the Christian tradition and his own rich insight. He writes about a God who loves us passionately, about the shame and "dis-grace" that cripples so many young people growing up in poverty and violence, and the toxic effects of neglect.

In a course he taught at Folsom Prison, none of the inmates could define compassion, until one old-timer said, "That's what Jesus did. I mean, Compassion ... IS ... God."

Boyle writes about giving young people time to do the slow work of finding themselves. His topics include gladness and joy, kinship, and success, which so often we turn into an idol. For those of us driven by the need to be successful, he quotes Mother Teresa, who once said, "We are not called to be successful, but faithful."

To this, Greg adds with genuine humility, "If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success becomes God's business. I find it hard enough to just be faithful."

From its original location in the old bakery building, Homeboy Industries has grown to an $8.5 million glass-and-concrete headquarters in a gang-neutral location on the edge of Chinatown. It houses Homeboy Bakery and a beautiful Homegirl Café, along with a catering service, various craft industries, and a Homeboy Diner at City Hall.

It currently employs 250-300 former gang members, while some 1,000 from the community take advantage of its services each month, including 500 monthly treatments at its clinic for tattoo removal.

The stories in his book, told originally in Boyle's homilies at Mass in some 25 detention centers, probation camps and juvenile facilities, brought tears to my eyes numerous times, as they will to yours. This is a holy book about the power of unconditional love and compassion.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Rausch is Chilton Professor of Catholic Theology at Loyola Marymount University.]

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