Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion
At times, I could almost hear my heart breaking as I read Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works with hardened gang members in Los Angeles and assists with reintegrating them back into society through his organization Homeboy Industries. Boyle founded Homeboy Industries to provide encouragement and support in the form of jobs and vocational training to former gang members who have expressed a desire to rehabilitate themselves.
Not only did my heart break more than once while reading Tattoos on the Heart, I found myself inspired by Boyle’s recounting of his experiences during the past twenty years in the barrios of East L.A. What kept this book from being flat out disheartening in terms of the obstacles that Boyle and the gang members are up against (Boyle has officiated at the funerals of hundreds of children, adolescents, and adults over the years as a result of gang violence) is Boyle’s sense of humor and faith that glimmers in the stories that he tells. His stories reminded me of homilies strung together to create a beautiful testimony to faith and humanity amongst tragedy and despair.
Boyle is also well schooled in the street language of his homies, which adds even more reality and credibility to his retelling of events. This is a priest who used to ride around on his bike to some of the most dangerous parts of L.A. at all times of the day or night to tend to his flock. Boyle doesn’t share these stories as a means to laud his bravery or piety, but to tell the stories of lost generations of individuals who find themselves in a seemingly unbroken cycle of violence, and to remind us of their humanity. Many of these former gang members were abused by parents or left to raise themselves with no resources or role models. Boyle writes of taking some of his homies to a sit down restaurant for the first time and how these normal day-to-day experiences that we take for granted are as foreign to them as riding a spaceship. Boyle also tells of the death threats he has received as a result of his work from people who don’t believe gang members can or should be rehabilitated.
According to the text, there are:
1,100 gangs encompassing 85,000 members in Los Angeles County, and Boyle Heights had the highest concentration of gang activity in the city. Since Father Greg—also known affectionately as G-dog—started Homeboy Industries more than twenty years ago, it has served members of more than half the gangs in Los Angeles.
I laughed and cried while reading this book. Boyle has a master’s degree in English and has received numerous awards, including the California Peace Prize. He sprinkles quotes of famous spiritual leaders of all faiths throughout his text, including Mother Theresa and Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk, poet and peace activist. While I found this book painful to read at times, I also found it to be transformative.