This is a Mindful Monday book review. Once a month or so, this column will be about a book that is not a recent publication, but still comes to mind frequently, as good books will.
Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion
by Gregory Boyle
Published in 2011, Tattoos on the Heart by Greg Boyle is hard to forget. I was by turns mesmerized, horrified, and enthralled as I read. Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is the pastor of Dolores Mission, http://www.dolores-mission.org/, a Catholic church located in gang-land central Los Angeles. The book is a collection of stories primarily about young people who have come to Boyle and Homeboy Industries http://www.homeboyindustries.org/ to find a way to leave gang life. The stories in themselves are jaw droppers, but Boyle doesn’t divulge them for their shock value alone. He loves the people, the “homies” that he lives among, and he helps us to see past the raw, bloody landscape of their daily lives to the value and beauty of their individuality.
Surprisingly, Tattoos on the Heart is often a very funny book. Boyle’s sense of humor is sublime, and he shared many stories that made me laugh out loud – even in public places– since I took the book everywhere I went.
Here is an example from the chapter called “Delores Mission and Homeboy Industries”:
“In 1992 Homeboy Bakery is launched, but seven years later in October of1999, it burns to the ground….I must admit, initially, I thought it was arson. When I say this, people often presume I mean that gang members did it. I never thought that. Homeboy Bakery stood as a symbol of hope to every gang member in the county. That they would destroy this place of second chances didn’t make sense.
But we had lots of enemies in those early days, folks who felt that assisting gang members somehow cosigned on their bad behavior. Hate mail, death threats, and bomb threats were common, especially after I wrote Op-Ed pieces in the Los Angeles Times (which I had done just prior to the fire).
We used to joke during this period of hostility… that with so much vitriol leveled at us, we ought to change our voice mail message after hours: ‘Thank you for calling Homeboy Industries. Your bomb threat is important to us.’ “
I was deeply saddened by the author’s description of the hopelessness and shame that so many of those in the barrios endure. In one chapter, Boyle describes his extremely demanding Saturday schedule, in which he races back to Dolores Mission after officiating at Masses at a probation camp so that he can perform baptisms, weddings, and attend other community/church events. On one particular Saturday, he saw that he had only seven minutes to prepare for a baptism, when a well known female heroin addict, gang member, and street person defiantly walked into his office and plopped into a chair. Without any introductions, she started talking. Boyle knew the family with the baby to be baptized were on their way to the church – they would be arriving in five minutes. But the woman who walked in unannounced was in full swing as she related her life story. Her name was Carmen. This is what she said that day in an excerpt from the book:
“I went to Catholic school all my life. Fact, I graduated from high school even. Fact, right after graduation is when I started to use heroin.” Carmen enters some kind of trance at this point, and her speech slows to deliberate and halting.
“And I …have been trying to stop…since…the moment I began.”
“Then I watch as Carmen tilts her head back until it meets the wall. She stares at the ceiling, and in an instant her eyes become these two ponds, water rising to meet their edges, swollen banks, spilling over. Then, for the first time really, she looks at me. and straightens.”
Boyles then writes: “Suddenly, her shame meets mine. For when Carmen walked through that door, I had mistaken her for an interruption.”
Another of the devastating realities of life in the barrios that Boyle unsparingly shares are the mindless murders that occur between enemy gangs. After the funeral of one young man, Boyle realized that in three weeks he had officiated at 8 burials, all gang-related deaths.
What I ultimately appreciate about this book is that Boyle introduces big, beautiful ideas in the midst of horrible conditions, ideas like kinship, success, compassion, and gladness. Boyle could have stayed with the sensational stories from the ghetto. It would still have been a fascinating book. But he didn’t. He has a poet’s eye and a lover’s heart, and because of that, the reader is able to get beyond the blistered warzone of the barrios Boyle serves to the beauty within the people he has come to know there. It’s a good skill to learn, no matter where you live, and Greg Boyle is just the one to teach it. Tattoos on the Heart is wildly funny, terribly sad, wonderfully wise. Be careful. Reading it might change your thinking, and your ministry.
Youth pastors: this book might be valuable to read as a group, whether gang life is a reality to your community or not. The power of peer pressure, and what is needed to resist it, is woven into the stories told through the homies lives.
For any age book group: Because so many gang deaths are revenge related, this might be a lead-in for talking about forgiveness and reconciliation.
In the chapter entitled “Compassion,” the congregation faces the fact that their church “smells like feet,” because homeless men sleep there during the night. (p74) They ask each other, “Why do we let that happen here?” Answer: “Because it’s what we’ve committed to do,” someone answers. “Well why would anyone commit to that? “Porque es lo que haria Jesus.” (It’s what Jesus would do.”) “Well, what does the church smell like now?” “Like commitment,” one man bellows. Cheers. A woman named Guadalupe waves her arms wildly, “Huele a rosas” (It smells like roses). In the book, Boyle then quotes Wendell Barry’s injunction, “You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.”
Is there a way that your church is able to “imagine lives that are not yours?”