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Tattoos on the Heart

The Power of Boundless Compassion



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About The Book

“Destined to become a classic of both urban reportage and contemporary spirituality” (Los Angeles Times)—Tattoos on the Heart is a series of parables about kinship and redemption from pastor, activist, and renowned speaker, Father Gregory Boyle.

Thirty years ago, Gregory Boyle founded Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and reentry program in Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world. In Tattoos on the Heart, his debut book, he distills his experience working with gang members into a breathtaking series of parables inspired by faith.

From giant, tattooed Cesar, shopping at JC Penney fresh out of prison, you learn how to feel worthy of God’s love. From ten-year-old Pipi you learn the importance of being known and acknowledged. From Lulu you come to understand the kind of patience necessary to rescue someone from the dark—as Father Boyle phrases it, we can only shine a flashlight on a light switch in a darkened room.

This is a motivating look at how to stay faithful in spite of failure, how to meet the world with a loving heart, and how to conquer shame with boundless, restorative love.


Tattoos on the Heart 1 God, I Guess
God can get tiny, if we’re not careful. I’m certain we all have an image of God that becomes the touchstone, the controlling principle, to which we return when we stray.

My touchstone image of God comes by way of my friend and spiritual director, Bill Cain, S.J. Years ago he took a break from his own ministry to care for his father as he died of cancer. His father had become a frail man, dependent on Bill to do everything for him. Though he was physically not what he had been, and the disease was wasting him away, his mind remained alert and lively. In the role reversal common to adult children who care for their dying parents, Bill would put his father to bed and then read him to sleep, exactly as his father had done for him in childhood. Bill would read from some novel, and his father would lie there, staring at his son, smiling. Bill was exhausted from the day’s care and work and would plead with his dad, “Look, here’s the idea. I read to you, you fall asleep.” Bill’s father would impishly apologize and dutifully close his eyes. But this wouldn’t last long. Soon enough, Bill’s father would pop one eye open and smile at his son. Bill would catch him and whine, “Now, come on.” The father would, again, oblige, until he couldn’t anymore, and the other eye would open to catch a glimpse of his son. This went on and on, and after his father’s death, Bill knew that this evening ritual was really a story of a father who just couldn’t take his eyes off his kid. How much more so God? Anthony De Mello writes, “Behold the One beholding you, and smiling.”

God would seem to be too occupied in being unable to take Her eyes off of us to spend any time raising an eyebrow in disapproval. What’s true of Jesus is true for us, and so this voice breaks through the clouds and comes straight at us. “You are my Beloved, in whom I am wonderfully pleased.” There is not much “tiny” in that.

* * *

In 1990 the television news program 60 Minutes came to Dolores Mission Church. One of its producers had read a Sunday Los Angeles Times Magazine article about my work with gang members in the housing projects. Mike Wallace, also seeing the piece, wanted to do a report. I was assured that I’d be getting “Good Mike.” These were the days when the running joke was “you know you’re going to have a bad day when Mike Wallace and a 60 Minutes film crew show up at your office.”

Wallace arrived at the poorest parish in Los Angeles in the stretchest of white limousines, stepped out of the car, wearing a flak jacket, covered with pockets, prepared, I suppose, for a journey into the jungle.

For all his initial insensitivity, toward the end of the visit, in a moment unrecorded, Wallace did say to me, “Can I admit something? I came here expecting monsters. But that’s not what I found.”

Later, in a recorded moment, we are sitting in a classroom filled with gang members, all students in our Dolores Mission Alternative School. Wallace points at me and says, “You won’t turn these guys in to the police.” Which seems quite silly to me at the time. I say something lame like, “I didn’t take my vows to the LAPD.” But then Wallace turns to a homie and grills him on this, saying over and over, “He won’t turn you in, will he?” And then he asks the homie, “Why is that? Why do you think he won’t turn you over to the police?” The kid just stares at Mike Wallace, shrugs, nonplussed, and says, “God . . . I guess.”

This is a chapter on God, I guess. Truth be told, the whole book is. Not much in my life makes any sense outside of God. Certainly, a place like Homeboy Industries is all folly and bad business unless the core of the endeavor seeks to imitate the kind of God one ought to believe in. In the end, I am helpless to explain why anyone would accompany those on the margins were it not for some anchored belief that the Ground of all Being thought this was a good idea.

* * *

Rascal is not one to take advice. He can be recalcitrant, defensive, and primed for the fight. Well into his thirties, he’s a survivor. His truck gets filled with scrap metal and with this, somehow, he feeds his kids and manages to stay on this side of eviction. To his credit, he bid prison time and gang-banging good-bye a long time ago. Rascal sometimes hits me up for funds, and I oblige if I have it and if his attitude doesn’t foul my mood too much. But you can’t tell him anything—except this one day, he actually listens. I am going on about something—can’t remember what but I can see he’s listening. When I’m done, he says simply, “You know, I’m gonna take that advice, and I’m gonna let it marinate,” pointing at his heart, “right here.”

Perhaps we should all marinate in the intimacy of God. Genesis, I suppose, got it right—“In the beginning, God.” Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, also spoke about the task of marinating in the “God who is always greater.”

He writes, “Take care always to keep before your eyes, first, God.” The secret, of course, of the ministry of Jesus, was that God was at the center of it. Jesus chose to marinate in the God who is always greater than our tiny conception, the God who “loves without measure and without regret.” To anchor yourself in this, to keep always before your eyes this God is to choose to be intoxicated, marinated in the fullness of God. An Algerian Trappist, before his martyrdom, spoke to this fullness: “When you fill my heart, my eyes overflow.”

* * *

Willy crept up on me from the driver’s side. I had just locked the office and was ready to head home at 8:00 p.m.

“Shit, Willy,” I say, “Don’t be doin’ that.”

“?’Spensa, G,” he says, “My bad. It’s just . . . well, my stomach’s on échale. Kick me down with twenty bones, yeah?”

“Dog, my wallet’s on échale,” I tell him. A “dog” is the one upon whom you can rely—the role-dog, the person who has your back. “But get in. Let’s see if I can trick any funds outta the ATM.”

Willy hops on board. He is a life force of braggadocio and posturing—a thoroughly good soul—but his confidence is outsize, that of a lion wanting you to know he just swallowed a man whole. A gang member, but a peripheral one at best—he wants more to regale you with his exploits than to actually be in the midst of any. In his midtwenties, Willy is a charmer, a quintessential homie con man who’s apt to coax money out of your ATM if you let him. This night, I’m tired and I want to go home.

It’s easier not to resist. The Food 4 Less on Fourth and Soto has the closest ATM. I tell Willy to stay in the car, in case we run into one of Willy’s rivals inside.

“Stay here, dog,” I tell him, “I’ll be right back.”

I’m not ten feet away when I hear a muffled “Hey.”

It’s Willy, and he’s miming, “the keys,” from the passenger seat of my car. He’s making over-the-top, key-in-the-ignition señales.

“The radio,” he mouths, as he holds a hand, cupping his ear.

I wag a finger, “No, chale.” Then it’s my turn to mime. I hold both my hands together and enunciate exaggeratedly, “Pray.”

Willy sighs and levitates his eyeballs. But he’s putty. He assumes the praying hands pose and looks heavenward—cara santucha. I proceed on my quest to the ATM but feel the need to check in on Willy only ten yards later.

I turn and find him still in the prayer position, seeming to be only half-aware that I’m looking in on him.

I return to the car, twenty dollars in hand, and get in. Something has happened here. Willy is quiet, reflective, and there is a palpable sense of peace in the vehicle. I look at Willy and say, “You prayed, didn’t you?”

He doesn’t look at me. He’s still and quiet. “Yeah, I did.”

I start the car.

“Well, what did God say to you?” I ask him.

“Well, first He said, ‘Shut up and listen.’”

“So what d’ya do?”

“Come on, G,” he says, “What am I sposed ta do? I shut up and listened.”

I begin to drive him home to the barrio. I’ve never seen Willy like this. He’s quiet and humble—no need to convince me of anything or talk me out of something else.

“So, son, tell me something,” I ask. “How do you see God?”

“God?” he says, “That’s my dog right there.”

“And God?” I ask, “How does God see you?”

Willy doesn’t answer at first. So I turn and watch as he rests his head on the recliner, staring at the ceiling of my car. A tear falls down his cheek. Heart full, eyes overflowing. “God . . . thinks . . . I’m . . . firme.”

To the homies, firme means, “could not be one bit better.”

Not only does God think we’re firme, it is God’s joy to have us marinate in that.

* * *

The poet Kabir asks, “What is God?” Then he answers his own question: “God is the breath inside the breath.”

Willy found his way inside the breath and it was firme.

I came late to this understanding in my own life—helped along by the grace-filled pedagogy of the people of Dolores Mission. I was brought up and educated to give assent to certain propositions. God is love, for example. You concede “God loves us,” and yet there is this lurking sense that perhaps you aren’t fully part of the “us.” The arms of God reach to embrace, and somehow you feel yourself just outside God’s fingertips.

Then you have no choice but to consider that “God loves me,” yet you spend much of your life unable to shake off what feels like God only embracing you begrudgingly and reluctantly. I suppose, if you insist, God has to love me too. Then who can explain this next moment, when the utter fullness of God rushes in on you—when you completely know the One in whom “you move and live and have your being,” as St. Paul writes. You see, then, that it has been God’s joy to love you all along. And this is completely new.

Every time one of the Jesuits at Dolores Mission would celebrate a birthday, the same ritual would repeat itself. “You know,” one of the other Jesuits would say to me, for example, “Your birthday is Wednesday. The people are throwing a ‘surprise party’ for you on the Saturday before.” The protests are as predictable as the festivities.

“Oh come on,” I’d say, “Can’t we pass this year?”

“Look,” one of my brothers would say to me, “This party is not for you—it’s for the people.”

And so I am led into the parish hall for some bogus meeting, and I can hear the people “shushing” one another—El Padre ya viene. As I step in the door, lights go on, people shout, mariachis strike themselves up. I am called upon to muster up the same award-winning look of shock from last year. They know that you know. They don’t care. They don’t just love you—it’s their joy to love you.

The poet Rumi writes, “Find the real world, give it endlessly away, grow rich flinging gold to all who ask. Live at the empty heart of paradox. I’ll dance there with you—cheek to cheek.”

Dancing cumbias with the women of Dolores Mission rhymes with God’s own wild desire to dance with each one of us cheek to cheek.

Meister Eckhart says “God is greater than God.” The hope is that our sense of God will grow as expansive as our God is. Each tiny conception gets obliterated as we discover more and more the God who is always greater.

* * *

At Camp Paige, a county detention facility near Glendora, I was getting to know fifteen-year-old Rigo, who was about to make his first communion. The Catholic volunteers had found him a white shirt and black tie. We still had some fifteen minutes before the other incarcerated youth would join us for Mass in the gym, and I’m asking Rigo the basic stuff about his family and his life. I ask about his father.

“Oh,” he says, “he’s a heroin addict and never really been in my life. Used to always beat my ass. Fact, he’s in prison right now. Barely ever lived with us.”

Then something kind of snaps in him—an image brings him to attention.

“I think I was in the fourth grade,” he begins. “I came home. Sent home in the middle of the day. Got into some pedo at school. Can’t remember what. When I got home, my jefito was there. He was hardly ever there. My dad says, ‘Why they send you home?’ And cuz my dad always beat me, I said, ‘If I tell you, promise you won’t hit me?’ He just said, ‘I’m your father. ’Course I’m not gonna hit you.’ So I told him.”

Rigo is caught short in the telling. He begins to cry, and in moments he’s wailing and rocking back and forth. I put my arm around him. He is inconsolable. When he is able to speak and barely so, he says only, “He beat me with a pipe . . . with . . . a pipe.”

When Rigo composes himself, I ask, “And your mom?” He points some distance from where we are to a tiny woman standing by the gym’s entrance.

“That’s her over there.” He pauses for a beat, “There’s no one like her.” Again, some slide appears in his mind, and a thought occurs.

“I’ve been locked up for more than a year and a half. She comes to see me every Sunday. You know how many buses she takes every Sunday—to see my sorry ass?”

Then quite unexpectedly he sobs with the same ferocity as before. Again, it takes him some time to reclaim breath and an ability to speak. Then he does, gasping through his tears. “Seven buses. She takes . . . seven . . . buses. Imagine.”

How, then, to imagine, the expansive heart of this God—greater than God—who takes seven buses, just to arrive at us. We settle sometimes for less than intimacy with God when all God longs for is this solidarity with us. In Spanish, when you speak of your great friend, you describe the union and kinship as being de uña y mugre—our friendship is like the fingernail and the dirt under it. Our image of who God is and what’s on God’s mind is more tiny than it is troubled. It trips more on our puny sense of God than over conflicting creedal statements or theological considerations.

The desire of God’s heart is immeasurably larger than our imaginations can conjure. This longing of God’s to give us peace and assurance and a sense of well-being only awaits our willingness to cooperate with God’s limitless magnanimity.

* * *

“Behold the One beholding you and smiling.” It is precisely because we have such an overactive disapproval gland ourselves that we tend to create God in our own image. It is truly hard for us to see the truth that disapproval does not seem to be part of God’s DNA. God is just too busy loving us to have any time left for disappointment.

* * *

One day I receive a phone call in my office around three in the afternoon. It’s from a twenty-five-year-old homie named Cesar. I have known him for most of his life. I can remember first meeting him when he was a little kid in Pico Gardens during the earthquake of 1987 when the projects had become a tent city. People lived outside in carpas well past the time of any danger. Cesar was one of the many kids seeking reassurance from me.

“Are we gonna be okay? Is this the end of the world?”

I spent every evening of those two weeks walking the tents, and I always associate Cesar with that period.

He’s calling me today because he has just finished a four-year stint in prison. Turned out, earthquakes were the least of Cesar’s troubles. He had joined the local gang, since there wasn’t anyone around to “chase his ass” and rein him in. At this point in his life, Cesar had been locked up more often than not. Cesar and I chitchat on the phone, dispatching the niceties in short order—“It’s good to be out—I’d love to see ya”—then Cesar says, “Let me just cut to the cheese.”

This was not a spin I had heard on this expression before.

“You know, I just got outta the pinta and don’t really have a place to stay. Right now, I’m staying with a friend in his apartment—here in El Monte—away from the projects and the hood and the homies. Y sabes qué, I don’t got no clothes. My lady she left me, and she burned all my clothes, you know, in some anger toward me, I guess.”

I’m waiting for him to cut to the cheese.

“So I don’t got no clothes,” he says. “Can you help me?”

“Sure, son,” I say, “Look, it’s three now. I’ll pick you up after work, at six o’clock.”

I drive to the apartment at the appointed hour, and I’m surprised to see Cesar standing on the sidewalk waiting for me—I’m used to searching for homies when asked to retrieve them. I guess you might say that Cesar is a scary-looking guy. It’s not just the fact that he’s large and especially, fresh out of prison, newly “swole” from lifting weights. He exudes menace. So there he is, standing and waiting for me. When he sees it’s me, this huge ex-con does this bouncing up and down, yippy-skippy, happy-to-see-ya, hand-clapping gleeful jig.

He flies into my car and throws his arms around me. “When I saw you right now, G, I got aaaallllll happy!”

There was some essence to him that hadn’t changed from that child wanting to know that the world was safe from earthquakes.

We go to JCPenney, and I tell him he can buy two hundred dollars’ worth of clothes. In no time, his arms are filled with the essentials, and we both are standing in a considerable line to pay for it all. All the other customers are staring at Cesar. Not only is he menacing, but he seems to have lost his volume knob. People can’t help but turn and look, though they all take great pains to pretend they’re not listening.

“Hey,” he says, in what you might call a loud-ass voice, “See dat couple over there?”

I am not the only one turning and looking. The entire check-out line shifts. Cesar points to a young couple with a tiny son.

“Well, I walk up to that guy and I look at him and I say, ‘Hey, don’t I know you?’ And his ruca grabs the morrito and holds him and shakes her head and says, ‘NO, WE DON’T KNOW YOU!’ all panickeada así. Then the vato looks at me like he’s gonna have a damn paro cardiaco, and he shakes his head, ‘NO, I DON’T KNOW YOU.’ Then I look at him more closer, and I say, ‘Oh, my bad, I thought you were somebody else.’ And they get aaaaallllll relaxed when I say that.” He takes a breath. “I mean, damn, G . . . do I look that scary?”

I shake my head no and say, “Yeah, pretty much, dog.”

The customers can’t help themselves, and we all laugh.

I drop Cesar off at his friend’s apartment. He becomes quiet and vulnerable, as frightened as a child displaced by shifting ground.

“I just don’t want to go back. La neta, I’m scared.”

“Look, son,” I say to him, “Who’s got a better heart than you? And God is at the center of that great, big ol’ heart. Hang on to that, dog—cuz you have what the world wants. So, what can go wrong?”

We say our good-byes, and as I watch him walk away alone, I find his gentleness and disarming sweet soul a kind of elixir, soothing my own doubts and calling me to fearlessness.

At three o’clock in the morning, the phone rings. It’s Cesar. He says what every homie says when they call in the middle of the night, “Did I wake you?”

I always think Why no, I was just waiting and hoping that you’d call.

Cesar is sober, and it’s urgent that he talk to me.

“I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father—ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question.”

Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I . . . been . . . your son?”

“Oh, hell, yeah,” I say.

“Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.”

Now his voice becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbing. “Then . . . I will be . . . your son. And you . . . will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?”

“That’s right.”

In this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having. The voice broke through the clouds of his terror and the crippling mess of his own history, and he felt himself beloved. God, wonderfully pleased in him, is where God wanted Cesar to reside.

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, says, “How narrow is the gate that leads to life.” Mistakenly, I think, we’ve come to believe that this is about restriction. The way is narrow. But it really wants us to see that narrowness is the way.

St. Hedwig writes, “All is narrow for me, I feel so vast.” It’s about funneling ourselves into a central place. Our choice is not to focus on the narrow, but to narrow our focus. The gate that leads to life is not about restriction at all. It is about an entry into the expansive. There is a vastness in knowing you’re a son/daughter worth having. We see our plentitude in God’s own expansive view of us, and we marinate in this.

* * *

In March of 2004, Scrappy walks into our office and, I’m not proud to admit it, my heart sinks. From the perch of my own glass-enclosed office, I can see Scrappy talking to Marcos, the receptionist, who is also from Scrappy’s gang. He is apparently signing up to see me. I haven’t seen Scrappy in ten years, since he’s been incarcerated all that time, but even before that, I’m not sure if he’s ever set foot in my office. My heart is in some lower register. Let’s just say Scrappy and I have never been on good terms. I first met him in the summer of 1984. I was newly ordained at Dolores Mission. He was fifteen years old, and his probation officer assigned him to the church to complete his hours of community service. The chip located on his shoulder was the size of a Pontiac. “I don’t have to listen to you.” “I don’t have to do what you say.”

Some five years later, I am standing in front of a packed church, preaching at the funeral of one of Scrappy’s homeboys. “If you love Cuko and want to honor his memory,” I say to the congregation, “then you will work for peace and love your enemies.” Immediately, Scrappy stands up and moves out of his pew and into the center aisle. All eyes are on him. I stop speaking. The eternal scowl I had come to know in that summer of 1984 is fixed on me as he walks straight ahead. We stand face-to-face, he mad-dogs me with some intensity, then turns and exits the church by the side door.

Three years later, I’m riding my bike, as I would in those days, “patrolling” the projects at night. I enter Scrappy’s barrio, and there is a commotion. The homies have formed a circle and clearly two of their rank are “goin’ head up.” I break through the mob and, indeed, find Scrappy throwing down with one of his own homies. I discover later that the beef was over some jaina (girl). I stop the fight, and Scrappy reaches into the front waist of his pants and pulls out a gun that he waves around wildly. The crowd seems to be more horrified than I am. There are great gasps and pleas,

“Hey, dog, damn, put the gun away.”

“Don’t disrespect G.”

Scrappy steadies the gun right at me and grunts a half laugh, “Shiiittt, I’ll shoot his ass too.”

Are you getting a sense of what our relationship was like?

So years later when I see him enter my office, it takes me a moment, but I locate my heart, hiding in Filene’s basement, and Marcos intercoms me: “Scrappy’s here.” Then his voice gets squeaky and tentative. “Ya wanna see him?” Marcos knew enough that this would be in some doubt. “?’Course, send him in.”

Scrappy is not a large fellow, but there is no fat in his midsize build. His hair is slicked back and his moustache is understated. He hugs me only because not to would be too awkward. We have, after all, known each other for twenty years.

He sits and wastes no time.

“Look, let’s just be honest with each other and talk man to man. You know that I’ve never disrespected you.”

I figure, why not, I’m gonna go for it.

“Well, how ’bout the time you walked out on my homily at Cuko’s funeral? . . . or the time you pulled a cuete out on me?”

Scrappy looks genuinely perplexed by what I’ve just said and cocks and scrunches his face like a confused beagle.

“Yeah, well . . . besides that,” he says.

Then we do something we never have in our two decades of knowing each other. We laugh. But really, truly laugh—head-resting-on-my-desk laughter. We carry on until this runs its course, and then Scrappy settles into the core of his being, beyond the bravado of his chingón status in his gang.

“I have spent the last twenty years building a reputation for myself . . . and now . . . I regret . . . that I even have one.”

And then in another first, he cries. But really, truly cries. He is doubled over, and the rocking seems to soothe the release of this great ache. When the wailing stops and he comes up for air, he daubs his eyes and runs his sleeve across his nose. He finally makes eye contact.

“Now what do I do? I know how to sell drugs. I know how to gangbang. I know how to shank fools in prison. I don’t know how to change the oil in my car. I know how to drive, but I don’t know how to park. And I don’t know how to wash my clothes except in the sink of a cell.”

I hire him that day, and he begins work the next morning on our graffiti crew.

Scrappy discovered, as Scripture has it, “that where he is standing is holy ground.” He found the narrow gate that leads to life. God’s voice was not of restriction, to “shape up or ship out.” Scrappy found himself in the center of vastness and right in the expansive heart of God. The sacred place toward which God had nudged Scrappy all his life is not to be arrived at, but discovered.

Scrappy did not knock on the door so God would notice him. No need for doors at all. Scrappy was already inside.

* * *

God seems to be an unwilling participant in our efforts to pigeonhole Him. The minute we think we’ve arrived at the most expansive sense of who God is, “this Great, Wild God,” as the poet Hafez writes, breaks through the claustrophobia of our own articulation, and things get large again. Richard Rohr writes in Everything Belongs that nothing of our humanity is to be discarded. God’s unwieldy love, which cannot be contained by our words, wants to accept all that we are and sees our humanity as the privileged place to encounter this magnanimous love. No part of our hardwiring or our messy selves is to be disparaged. Where we stand, in all our mistakes and imperfection, is holy ground. It is where God has chosen to be intimate with us and not in any way but this. Scrappy’s moment of truth was not in recognizing what a disappointment he’s been all these years. It came in realizing that God had been beholding him and smiling for all this time, unable to look anywhere else. It is certainly true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, nor can you judge a book by its first chapter—even if that chapter is twenty years long. When the vastness of God meets the restriction of our own humanity, words can’t hold it. The best we can do is find the moments that rhyme with this expansive heart of God.

Shortly after I was ordained, I spent a year in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It was a gracious time that changed me forever. My Spanish was quite poor, and the year was to be filled with language study and ministry. I could celebrate the Eucharist in Spanish (after a summer at Dolores Mission), but I was a slave to the missal for some time to come. Early on, I began to minister to a community named Temporal, which had been without a priest for a long time. A few weeks into my time there, I was approached by a group of health workers who asked me to celebrate Mass in Tirani. This was a Quechua community located high above Cochabamba, whose indigenous folks harvested flowers for market. It was common to see campesinos making the long trek from Tirani with a huge weight of flowers tied to their backs. Like beasts of burden, they were doubled over all the way to town.

The health workers explain that the Quechua Indians in Tirani have not seen a priest in a decade, so they ask me to celebrate the Mass in Spanish, and one of the workers would preach in Quechua. (Everyone there speaks Quechua, with only the men able to defend themselves in Spanish.) The workers pick me up at the bottom of the hill at one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. I hop into the back of the open-air truck with the others, and we climb to the top of the mountain. Midtrek, I decide to do an inventory of the contents of my backpack. I have brought everything I need but a missalette. I have not the words. At this point in my early priesthood, I couldn’t wing Mass in English. The thought of doing so in Spanish was preposterous. I do have a Spanish Bible, so I frantically flip through the pages, trying to find any passages that sound like the words of consecration. “Take this and eat.”

I locate any part of the New Testament that has Jesus kicking it at a table and eating. Soon, my body is introducing me to the marvels of flop sweat—and I haven’t even arrived at Tirani yet. I am red in the face and stingy hot.

We pull into a huge, open-air landing, a field cleared of all crops, and many hundreds of Quechua Indians have gathered and set themselves down around this table, our altar. I hobble and fake my way through the liturgy of the Word, aided by the health workers, who read everything in Quechua. After the gentleman preaches, it is my turn to carry the ball. I’m like someone who’s been in a major car accident. I can’t remember a thing.

I know only that I have a crib sheet with some notes I have made, with stolen scriptural quotations, all the while lifting the bread and wine whenever I run out of things to say. It would be hard to imagine this Mass going worse.

When it is over, I am left spent and humiliated. I am wandering adrift, trying to gather my shattered self back together again, when a female health worker walks an ancient Quechua woman up to me.

“She hasn’t gone to confession in ten years.”

She leaves her with me, and the viejita unloads a decade’s worth of sins in a singsongy and rapid-fire Quechua. I just nod like a menso waiting for a pause that might indicate she’s finished. The woman’s got some pulmones on her and doesn’t seem to need to take a breath. She goes on for about a half hour. Finally she does stop, and I manage to communicate some penance and give her my memorized absolution. She walks away, and I turn to discover that I have been abandoned. The field where we celebrated Mass has been vacated. Inexplicably, even the truck and the health workers are gone. I am alone at the top of this mountain, stuck, not only without a ride, but in stultifying humiliation. I am convinced that a worse priest has never visited this place or walked this earth.

With my backpack snug on my shoulder and spirit deflated, I begin to make the long walk down the mountain and back to town. But before I leave the makeshift soccer field that had been our cathedral, an old Quechua campesino, seemingly out of nowhere, makes his way to me. He appears ancient, but I suspect his body has been weathered by work and the burden of an Indian’s life. As he nears me, I see he is wearing tethered wool pants, with a white buttoned shirt, greatly frayed at the collar. He has a rope for a belt. His suit coat is coarse and worn. He has a fedora, toughened by the years. He is wearing huaraches, and his feet are caked with Bolivian mud. Any place that a human face can have wrinkles and creases, he has them. He is at least a foot shorter than I am, and he stands right in front of me and says, “Tatai.”

This is Quechua for Padrecito, a word packed with cariño, affection, and a charming intimacy. He looks up at me, with penetrating, weary eyes and says, “Tatai, gracias por haber venido” (Thanks for coming).

I think of something to say, but nothing comes to me. Which is just as well, because before I can speak, the old campesino reaches into the pockets of his suit coat and retrieves two fistfuls of multicolored rose petals. He’s on the tips of his toes and gestures that I might assist with the inclination of my head. And so he drops the petals over my head, and I’m without words. He digs into his pockets again and manages two more fistfuls of petals. He does this again and again, and the store of red, pink, and yellow rose petals seems infinite. I just stand there and let him do this, staring at my own huaraches, now moistened with my tears, covered with rose petals. Finally, he takes his leave and I’m left there, alone, with only the bright aroma of roses.

For all the many times I would return to Tirani and see the same villagers, over and over, I never saw this old campesino again.

God, I guess, is more expansive than every image we think rhymes with God. How much greater is the God we have than the one we think we have. More than anything else, the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval. This joy just doesn’t know what we’re talking about when we focus on the restriction of not measuring up. This joy, God’s joy, is like a bunch of women lined up in the parish hall on your birthday, wanting only to dance with you—cheek to cheek. “First things, recognizably first,” as Daniel Berrigan says. The God, who is greater than God, has only one thing on Her mind, and that is to drop, endlessly, rose petals on our heads. Behold the One who can’t take His eyes off of you.

Marinate in the vastness of that.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Tattoos on the Heart includes discussion questions, and a Q&A with author Greg Boyle. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

• Rival gang members worked side by side in Greg’s first humanitarian business venture, Homeboy Bakery. How did this unusual arrangement—enemies working together— play out? Can you think of ways this approach might work in a different context of conflict?
• Greg talks about offering opportunities, not to people who need help but to those who want it. What difference do you think this makes?
• Elias Montes accepts an award on Greg’s behalf and says to the audience, “Because Father Greg and Homeboy Industries believed in me, I decided to believe in myself.“ Greg himself writes, “Sometimes resilience arrives in the moment you discover your own unshakeable goodness.” For all their bravado, a lot of the gang members are deeply vulnerable and insecure—how does Greg approach this contradiction?
• Greg writes, “Kinship [is] not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not ‘a man for others’; he was one with them.” How are the two different, and how does Greg integrate this distinction into his work?
• How does life in a gang—which promises a sense of safety, belonging, and an income—compare to life at Homeboy Industries (HBI)?
• Greg describes how reporters and other guests are often scared and wary when visiting his community. Now that you know the homies’ stories, would you feel comfortable working alongside them at Homeboy Bakery or ordering a cup of coffee at the Homegirl Cafe?
• The book is organized around stories that read like parables of faith. What did these stories teach you about kinship, compassion, redemption, and mercy? How are some of these key lessons applicable to your own daily life?
• How does Greg interpret the biblical parable about the paralyzed man being lowered through the roof of the packed house so that he can access Jesus (p. 75)? He agrees that the story is about the curative power of Jesus, but he also sees “something more significant happening. They’re ripping the roof off the place, and those outside are being let in.” What does Greg mean by that? How has reading this book informed your understanding of this parable?
• Greg spends a lot of time talking to the homies about their different conceptions of God. Do you believe in God, and if so, how does your belief color the way that you view disparities in privilege and opportunity?
• Greg often integrates poetry into his teachings. He quotes Rumi (p. 26): “Find the real world, give it endlessly away, grow rich flinging gold to all who ask. Live at the empty heart of paradox. I’ll dance there with you—cheek to cheek.” How do you think Greg interprets these lines? How do you think that interpretation informs his approach to his work? How do you interpret these lines?
• In the preface, Greg explains the title and his hope that readers will tattoo these stories onto their hearts. Which of these stories about Greg’s work stuck with you most?   

A Conversation with Greg Boyle 

What made you decide to write this book? Why was it important for you to share these experiences and stories with the world?  

For well over two decades, I had been telling these stories in thousands of Catholic Masses in detention facilities and in talks all over the country. People encouraged me, all the time, to put the stories down on paper. But in the end, I wrote the stories for the same reason I tell them, so that people will see what I have been privileged to see in lives and experiences of gang members: courage, nobility, decency, holiness, and the face of God. I’ve come to stand in awe at who they are and what they’ve had to carry, and I wanted readers to see this as well.

What you are doing at HBI is very unconventional and brave. How do your superiors in the Church feel about your work?  

First of all, this work has never really felt brave nor unconventional to me. If you listen to the poor and those on the margins, they will tell you what needs to be done and what will concretely be helpful to them. There was never a grand scheme or clear blueprint or a whole-cloth business plan—just incremental responses to the needs of the most disparaged among the poor. So it’s always felt less “brave,” no more than a simple “rolling up of the sleeves” and getting busy-attentive to the “cry of the poor.” I suppose it is something of a cliché that “Superiors,” initially, didn’t know what to make of such a venture as Homeboy Industries. I’m happy to say that, currently, it is a ministry hugely welcomed and valued.

You’ve worked with gang members for over twenty-five years now—have you noticed any changes in the community? Have the dynamics changed over time in terms of why kids join gangs and why they decide to leave them?  

Needless to say, much has changed in the gang landscape of the past quarter of a century. In Los Angeles County alone, we have moved from an all-time high in gang-related homicides in 1992 (1,000) and have since seen that number cut in half, then cut in half again. The wholesale and widespread demonizing of this population, so pervasive when I began, has now been replaced with a more spacious, and “smarter,” take on crime. This is progress. Homeboy Industries got hate mail in the early years and now gets love letters. Also progress. But kids still join gangs because of a lethal absence of hope. We all need to continue to infuse such kids with hope, because hope is so foreign to them. In all recovery, they say, “It takes what it takes.” The birth of a son, the death of a friend, a long stretch in prison—it takes what it takes for a gang member to say, “I’ve had enough.” Then, if society has an exit ramp off this crazy freeway, a homie will take it.

What is the most effective way to empower the homeboys/ girls? How do you get them to trust you?  

Empowerment rests in returning folks to themselves, to the very truth of who they are. Gang members (and everyone, for that matter) are surprised to discover that they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them. To discover that God is too busy loving them to be disappointed is life changing. But there is work to be done besides—to engage in attachment repair, healing, collating of resilience, and the largest task of all: to redefine who you are now in the world. All these constitute the empowering work a homie must undertake to be free and clear. This is no small endeavor. And they trust you if you love them. The task is not to bring them to hope, but to allow them to bring you to hope. You value them, they feel valuable. With loving-kindness and attention, they find themselves returned to delight and their original beauty, and you are returned to the very same thing in the process. What’s not to trust in that?

Over the years, what continues to surprise you the most about gang culture? And what surprises you the most about how the community reacts to your efforts at HBI?  

I suppose that historically, we have seen three distinct models at play in how society has confronted the gang issue. There was the Demonizing Model, which had an abundance of confidence in our ability to suppress gang violence. This could be seen in law enforcement programs like Operation Hammer in Los Angeles and Git ’Em in Arizona. There followed the Romanticizing Model: it chose to work with gangs as groups rather than with gang members—to approach gang violence like in the Middle East or Northern Ireland, trying to reach an accord and peace between the factions. Yet, as I see it, there is violence in gang violence, but no conflict. It’s not a behavior; it’s a language, and it’s about despair—that’s what needs to be addressed. The third model is the Recovery Model. This is what Homeboy Industries does. It works with gang members and helps them transform their lives in the context of a welcoming, unconditionally loving community. Community, ultimately, trumps gang. The community at large sees this and it makes sense to them. Beyond the demonizing, which is always untruth, and the romanticizing, which is always wrong-headed, recovery is a model more full and respectful of what this enormously complex social dilemma is really about. The best diagnosis will lead us to the most sensible and appropriate treatment plan.

Your battle with leukemia marked a turning point for you. In what way did this experience influence your attitude toward your work at HBI and toward the gang members you work with?  

For all the discomfort and upheaval that cancer and chemotherapy meant in my life, I would not trade that time for anything. It ushered in a clarity for me, of the exquisite mutuality of the kinship of God. In a sense, my next book, Barking to the Choir: Now Entering the Kinship of God, will seek to explore the contours of this mutuality. Few experiences have helped shape this view for me more than my own illness.

Another pivotal moment for you was your trip to Bolivia. Have you been back since you started HBI? Would you like to go back?  

I haven’t been back to Bolivia, and I suppose my own health issues have kept me from returning to the “Third World,” if you will. I fell in love with the poor in Bolivia and it set my heart in a certain direction, for sure. Dolores Mission and HBI would not have happened in my life had not my “compass” been reconfigured by the graciousness of the Bolivians. The poor give you a privileged access to the God who stands there with them. Once you experience this, it is where you want to reside—in the company of the “least.”

You speak Spanish and are clearly comfortable with homeboy colloquialisms. How much does your embracing of the language factor into your relationships with gang members and the results you have achieved in your community?  

Communication is surely a desired goal for me. Beginning with homilies in jails, I wanted to connect. Telling stories keeps people attentive, but you can rivet them if you are telling them THEIR stories. It’s heartening still to have a gang member show up in my office, many years later, seeking help at HBI, and referencing a story he remembers I told when he was sixteen in a Juvenile Hall. People just want to be heard and valued. Along with returning them to themselves, you remind them that they have stories. This helps them come to their truth. But I also think homies are eternally interesting and as a lover of language, homie-speak is full of life, goodness, and high hilarity. At first you tried to mediate truces between gangs, but soon decided to stop. Why is that? Truces, peace treaties, and cease-fires made more sense when gangs were indigenous. They are more of a commuter reality currently in Los Angeles. But beyond that, I can see that such work served the cohesion of gangs—it was an oxygen supply, keeping gangs alive. This is decidedly a bad thing. If I thought that working with gangs was helpful, I’d be doing it.

Have you worked with gang members who were not religious or not Catholic? Do you think your message is applicable to people of other faiths?  

Clearly, of the thousands of gang members who have received help at HBI, they have represented every creedal perspective imaginable. Certainly, my own Christian faith undergirds what I do, but what we do at HBI is try to imitate the kind of God we believe in: the God of second chances; the God of the spacious and expansive heart; the God who loves us without measure and without regret; the God who casts His lot with those excluded, hoping for greater inclusion for them. HBI isn’t about any religion; it’s about God’s own dream come true: that there be kinship.

It’s always hard to get enough funding to meet payroll at HBI. How much of this, do you think, is due to the recession and how much is it due to people’s misunderstanding of or prejudice against members?  

Meeting payroll still keeps me up at night. Everyone can agree that this current economic crisis has only heightened the degree of difficulty there is in raising money. It also goes without saying, if I ran a nonprofit that helped children or puppies or fought a disease, I’d be sleeping better at night. Helping gang members redirect their lives is a tough sell. But HBI doesn’t just help gang members, it saves the County and State well over $100 million dollars a year (otherwise, the State and the County would have to incarcerate the folks we help). As well, HBI has a singular impact on public safety in Los Angeles County. Safety is in everybody’s interest. HBI is a bargain and worthy of support. And I need my sleep!

What was your goal when you first started HBI? Have your ambitions for this initiative evolved since then?  

HBI was a response in a particular historical moment in a specific community, in a place of the highest concentration of gang activity in the known world. HBI was also just one step, one response at a time, and eternally evolving. A homie shows up with an alarming facial tattoo and tattoo removal was born. Not because I thought it was a good idea, but because the tattooed guy did. And so it evolved. We decided, maybe five years ago, after fielding so many requests, that HBI would not franchise and become the “McDonald’s” of gang intervention programs (Over 5 billion gang members served!!). But we now have a Homeboy Network of twenty-eight programs in the United States, born and modeled after HBI. From Spokane to Miami, we have offered technical assistance—we have gone there and they have come to us. Rather than airlift HBI into St. Paul or Wichita, programs have been “born from below” and modeled on our approach. This allows more ownership on the part of each city and is more organic, sensible, and sustainable because of it.

What’s the most important piece of advice that you would like to give people who are eager to help bring peace and understanding to their troubled communities?  

It’s about about gang members, not gangs. It’s about infusing hope to kids who are stuck in despair. It’s about healing the traumatized and damaged so that kids can transform their pain and cease to transmit it. It’s about delivering mental health services in a timely and appropriate manner to the troubled young among us. Above all, it’s about reverence for the complexity of this issue and a singular insistence that human beings are involved. There are no demons here. Just young people, whose burdens are more than they can bear and who are having difficulty imaging a future for themselves. All hands on deck—if you are the proud owner of a pulse—you can be beneficial here.

What’s next for HBI? And for you?  

In 2013, HBI will celebrate twenty-five years. I suppose all of us at HBI want to prepare and insure sustainability for the next twenty-five years. Our hope is to help folks, but to always announce a message of kinship, mutuality, and concrete investment in those who have been discarded.

About The Author

Eddie Ruvalcaba

Gregory Boyle is an American Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. He has received the California Peace Prize and been inducted into the California Hall of Fame. In 2014, the President Obama named Boyle a Champion of Change. He received the University of Notre Dame’s 2017 Laetare Medal, the oldest honor given to American Catholics. He is the acclaimed author of Tattoos on the Heart, Barking to the Choir, and The Whole LanguageCherished Belonging is his fourth book, and he will be donating all net proceeds to Homeboy Industries.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (February 22, 2011)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439153154

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