I’m spending a lot of time reading these days, principally to get a jumpstart on the book selections for my book club that resumes in September.
If you read only one book this summer, let it be Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle (Free Press, 2010). For almost 30 years now, Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, has run Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program in Los Angeles. It’s hard to believe that in thirty years this is the first I hear of Greg Boyle. Book reviews and quotations from recognizable readers usually exaggerate a book’s impact. Not the case here. The book has been called “astonishing”, “tough and tender”, leaving you in “tears and laughter”, and “a spiritually cleansing experience that won’t leave you the same.” I found it to be all of these descriptors.
G-dog, as the homies call him, tells their stories with warmth, humor, and compassion. The life experiences of his homies are both heartbreaking and hopeful. (In his almost thirty years, Fr. Greg has buried 217 young people.) The stories use the words of the homies who often mangle the English language. It reminds me of “kids say the darndest things” – all innocence and charm. The stories are organized into thematic chapters, for example, “God, I Guess”, “Compassion”, “Slow Work”, “Gladness”, “Kinship”.
If the book were simply stories of former gang members, it would be interesting. What makes the book compelling is the spirituality of loving kindness that permeates the stories. They are illustrations of the “no matter whatness” of a God who loves unconditionally. This is a spacious and expansive God – not the one we often make in our own image.
In hundreds of speaking engagements each year, Fr. Greg reiterates the central themes of the book. A sample of YouTube videos of his presentations include a TED talk in 2012, an address at Holy Cross College in Worcester in February 2017, and Commencement at the University of Notre Dame this past May. He calls us to go to the margins to stand with the “easily despised and readily left out”, to stop demonizing people or throwing them away. He explains that we must see ourselves in kinship with those on the margins – not serving them or trying to rescue them, but recognizing that in compassionate communion, we are all redeemed. He says that we ought to stand “in awe at what the poor have to carry, not in judgment of how they carry it.”
Fr. Greg believes that his role – and ours – is to hold a mirror up to others and do what we can to help them to return to the person that God intends them to be. He urges us to return to the “original program” of the Gospels: inclusion, nonviolence, compassionate loving-kindness, and acceptance. That is the only praise that God is interested in.