Father Gregory Boyle is a Catholic priest who has made significant steps in helping gang members turn their lives around, and helped the public to understand what led them into criminal lifestyles.
In his book “Tattoos on the Heart,” Father Boyle (also known as “G” to the gang members he helps) writes stories about gang members who are usually demonized and portrays them as human beings who have suffered incredible traumas throughout their lives.
The Jesuit priest is the founder of Homeboy Industries, an intervention program for gang members. He began his career in 1984 as an associate pastor, and then pastor, at Dolores Mission. It’s located in the Boyle Heights area of East Los Angeles and stands between two public housing projects, Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, which at that time was considered the gang capital of Los Angeles.
Father G uses “dichos” (Spanish sayings) and homie street slang, which is hilarious and at other times very touching. He quotes several poets and theologians and uses parables throughout his narrative. His book is incredibly heartwarming and tragic. It is full of hope, compassion and empathy.
For those who are marginalized from society. Father G is able to understand and talk about the core issues and beliefs that gang members internalize, like how author John Bradshaw claims that shame is the root of all addictions. “This would certainly seem to be true with the gang addiction. In the fact of all this, the call is to allow the painful shame of others to have a purchase on our lives. Not to fix the problem, but to feel it.”
You won’t be able to help but feel compassion for the children in Father G’s book.
He tells the story of a little project kid in his office who had regularly been late for school and missing class. “I hear you’ve been late for school a lot,” Father G tells him. He cries immediately, “I don’t got that much clothes.” He had so internalized the fact that he didn’t have clean clothes (or enough of them) that it infected his very sense of self.
He goes on to say later in the same chapter: author and psychiatrist James Gilligan writes that the self cannot survive without love, and the self, starved of love, dies. The absence of self-love is shame, “Just as cold is the absence of warmth.”
There are moments in the book when homies will find and understand their self-worth.
He writes about how he sends homies to give speeches and accept awards for him (which he gives them), like Elias: He’s trembling as he holds the yellow lined paper on which he’s written his speech. It’s not much of a speech, really—there is no poetry, only the unmistakable testimony of this kid standing there, transformed and astonishing.
The audience seems to get this. He gets to the end with a big finish. “Because Father Greg and Homeboy Industries believed in me, I decided to believe in myself. And the best way I can think of payin’ ’em back is by changing my life. And that’s exactly what I’d decided to do. Thank you.”
The audience erupts in applause. They truly go nuts. They are on their feet and people are crying and shouting.
Elias doesn’t even understand that they are clapping for him and not Father G until someone tells him. And so, an entire room of total strangers hands Elias back to himself in no uncertain terms.
Father G talks of the violence and its effect on the community and ultimately on those he loves—the gang members themselves. You will find yourself reading a story of someone you begin to enjoy and root for and it will leave you heartbroken when their life is tragically taken. When this happened, I would continue reading, hoping that the next person would make it.
Father G “doesn’t offer steps or solutions to the widespread problems of gangs.” He states: “My book will not be a ‘How to deal with gangs’ book. It will not lay out a comprehensive plan for a city to prevent and intervene in their burgeoning gang situation.”
Instead his hopes are that, in finding a home for these stories in this modest effort, “I hope likewise to tattoo those mentioned here on our collective heart.”
The book does not concern itself with solving the gang problem. It aspires to broaden the parameters of our kinship. It hopes to put a human face on the gang members and to recognize our own wounds in the broken lives and daunting struggles of the men and women in these parables.
That in itself is the first step toward fixing the gang problem anywhere in the world—seeing gang members as human beings, having empathy without judgment. When you develop that “kinship” you can share your love with someone who has been deprived of it and help begin the healing process.
It does not matter what your beliefs or religion may be. When you read “Tattoos on the Heart” you will find a higher power in the love for your fellow man.