Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

I first heard of this book when our pastor read a memorable story during her sermon--of taking two homeboys out to a restaurant for the first time in their lives. Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles and the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries--the largest gang intervention program in the country. The organization's motto is "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." Fr. Boyle has been working amongst gang-afflicted kids and young adults for 24 years.

This book is a collection of his stories--full of gut-wrenching pain, beauty, loss, and grace.
He tells stories about homies who are shocked to their core that someone actually believes in them or takes the time for them. Kids who have never felt any worth finally get real jobs and make lives for themselves. Sworn enemies work side by side and become friends. He writes about the women of his church, who love these kids through their flaws and felonies.

The stories are interspersed with lovely quotes that help emphasize his stories and message, such as this one:
"It's when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart." --Denise Levertov  
Some of these kids have been abandoned or abused by their parents and have never experienced the Japanese concept of "amae," living in a deep sense of being cherished.

Fr. Boyle and his colleagues attempt to do this for the homies. He notes, "The great encounter with the 'father wound' is every homeboy's homework." He also writes about moms who take seven separate buses to see their sons, every Sunday, and compares this dedication to the expansive heart of God.

He writes about hardened, violent, criminal gangsters who turn into emotional little boys when they are deeply loved unconditionally.

The title, "Tattoos on the Heart," comes from this story, which gives you a brief glimpse of the deep, enduring effects Fr. Boyle (or "G," as they call him) has on the young people he helps:
"Once, after dealing with a particularly exasperating homie named Sharkey, I switch my strategy and decide to catch him in the act of doing the right thing. I can see I have been too harsh and exacting with him, and he is, after all, trying the best he can. I tell him how heroic he is and how the courage he now exhibits in transforming his life far surpasses the hollow 'bravery' of his barrio past. I tell him that he is a giant among men. I mean it. Sharkey seems to be thrown off balance by all this and silently stares at me. Then he says, 'Damn, G...I'm gonna tattoo that on my heart.'"
In his 24 years of working with homeboys and homegirls, Boyle has buried 168+ of them. Can you imagine?

This book brought tears to my eyes multiple times. Boyle lives out his belief that it is our responsibility as human beings to make sure "the voices on the margins get heard and the circle of compassion widens." I feel honored to have witnessed a tiny glimpse of this compassion through these stories.

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