Recently, I had the good fortune to learn about Father Gregory Boyle’s “Tattoos on the Heart” from my supervisor. It sounded interesting, so I went to my handy-dandy Amazon Prime account and bought it immediately. (Bargain shopping for books on Amazon is more than a habit for me; it’s a lifestyle.) Once it was delivered, I started reading… and I could barely put it down.
Everyone you see, you say to them,
Of course you do not do this out loud…”
Boyle’s book is a powerful, insightful read discussing his work with gang members in the Los Angeles area over a period of three decades. Father Boyle moved to the area as a priest and expanded his mission to serving those most in need in his parish. The book is a moving example of Christianity “with its workboots on.” Boyle’s insight into Christ’s boundless compassion, redeeming grace, and endless patience make the reader laugh with his irreverence and cry with his profundity.
“How much greater is the God we have than the one we think we have.”
Boyle’s beliefs about God’s love, identity, compassion, and grace (summarized quite brilliantly in his quote above) is infused throughout the book. Without these beliefs, Boyle writes, he would never have undertaken this work. Without first experiencing and understanding Christ’s boundless compassion and grace, Boyle would never have been able to show it to others – especially those whom society deems unfit. He learned the hard way, however, that going out and preaching about Jesus to anyone who was standing around wasn’t the way to disciple people. Instead, Boyle met them where they were and created much-needed opportunities for them. He founded Homeboy Industries – a foundation with multiple businesses that hire gang members looking to leave the life. As people in the neighborhood saw what Boyle had to offer, they began to seek him out. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“…[T]he principle suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame – a global sense of failure of the whole self. … The ‘no-matter-whatness’ of God dissolves the toxicity of shame and fills us with tender mercy.”
Additionally, “Tattoos on the Heart” shines a light on the harsh realities of the culture of poverty and the harmful effects it has on those who live around and below the poverty line. Boyle’s descriptions of the trials and tribulations his parishioners face are hard to read about, and they challenge the stereotypes about gang members and impoverished minorities that many people hold (whether they are aware of them or not). Boyle describes in detail the lives of his friends who experience such great shame about themselves and their lives that they self-identify as bad people and see no way out of the lifestyle they are living. He tells stories of heavily tattooed men who receive nasty looks in restaurants, people with no marketable job skills because no one would ever hire them, and others who don’t know how to exist outside of juvenile detention or prison. People who have survived abuse at the hands of strangers, enemy gang members, and loved ones. They don’t believe they are worthy or lovable, by God or man. But even when humans are judgmental (and church-going folk can sometimes be the worst), God extends his love and mercy to those that other humans deem unworthy, because Jesus “had room for everybody in his compassion.”
“Jesus was not a man for others. He was one with others. … The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather standing in the right place – with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.”
This is what “Tattoos on the Heart” is all about – standing with those in need. To paraphrase another quote from Boyle, we must learn how to have compassion for everything that poor people must face without judging the ways they try to survive it. That can be a difficult perspective to take. It can challenge beliefs and opinions that have formed throughout our lives. It might contradict one’s political party of choice’s platform. But what do you gain by changing your perspective; what do others gain? Challenge yourself with the thoughts in this book, and ask yourself where you stand. Do you take the right stand on issues? Or do you stand in the right place? How can you do your best to stand in the right place for those around you who are in need?