Twenty years ago, Father Gregory Boyle was assigned to a job no one wanted — ministering in the gang-infested neighborhoods of Los Angeles, long thought by many authorities to be beyond redemption.
His new memoir, Tattoos on the Heart-The Power of Boundless Compassion, tells the story of a man who does more than just reform gangbangers by providing them with jobs, social services and respect. He intercedes into the lives of the most unwanted, changing how these youngsters view everything around them, including themselves.
Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, transformed himself into a trusted facilitator of hope. “You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship,” writes Boyle, a Jesuit priest. “We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”
Never wavering in his faith, Boyle says, “Resilience is born by grounding yourself in your own loveliness, hitting notes you thought were out of your range. We must do the slow work of God.”
What if a gang member had
actually been parented?
Tattoos on the Heart was a Los Angeles Times best seller and winner of the 2010 SCIBA Book Award for Nonfiction and was named by Publishers Weekly among the Best Books of 2010..
Boyle doesn’t minimize the violence associated with gang life. “I used to tell homies that one of the reasons they continued to gangbang was they were never around to hear a mother scream when she heard her son was dead.”
“Sometimes, you just can’t think of much else to do but shake your fist and get red in the face,” he writes.
Faced with the tragic paths taken by many involved in gangs, Boyle wonders about the “what ifs.” What if a gang member had actually been parented? What if he just had a stable place to rest his head? But regardless of their pasts, Boyle doesn’t think their fates are sealed. His energy in Tattoos on the Heart is focused on letting gang members know that transformation is available for them.
“Sometimes you need to walk in the gang member’s door, in order to introduce him to a brand-new door,” he writes. “You grab what he finds valuable and bend it around something else, a new form of nobility. You try to locate his moral code and conform it to a new standard that no longer includes violence and the harboring of enemies.”
Boyle said he believes the most marginalized people in society are the most critical ones to help. “Only when we can see a community where the outcast is valued and appreciated will we abandon the values that seek to exclude,” he writes.
He insists no one is beyond hope or help. Quoting philosopher Mary Oliver, Boyle writes, “There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, all day long.”