“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.
For twenty years, Father Gregory Boyle has run Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles—also known as the gang capital of the world. In Tattoos on the Heart, he has distilled his experience working in the ghetto 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.
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This reading group guide forTattoos on the Heartincludes 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.
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 White House 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 and Barking to the Choir. The Whole Language is his third book, and he will be donating all net proceeds to Homeboy Industries.
Rockhurst University (2010/2011) Gonzaga University (2011/2012) Holy Cross University (2011/2012) St. Mary's University (2011/2012) University of Scranton (2012/2013) Villa Maria College (2012/2013) George Fox University (2013/2014) Loyola Marymount University (2013/2014) University of Detroit Mercy (2013/2014) St. Louis University (2013/2014) Carroll College (2014/2015) Xavier University (2014/2015) Loyola University, Chicago (2014/2015)