Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion Summary

Extended Summary

In Tattoos on the Heart, Gregory Boyle, a Catholic priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries, presents a compelling testament about his ministry in the "gang capital" of Los Angeles. The story is told through a compilation of engaging, genuine, and often heart-rending vignettes taken from his experiences working with gang members, all of which support the central themes of God, compassion, and kinship. The book presents a fundamental challenge to the subtle underlying suspicion that, in this world, "some lives matter less than other lives." By putting a human face on the gang member, Boyle hopes to inspire readers to recognize a little bit of their own brokenness in the relentless struggles of the men and women he describes.

In 1986, Father Gregory Boyle, a member of the religious order the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, expresses to his provincial superior a desire to work with the poor. As a result, he is assigned to be the pastor at Dolores Mission Church, the most impoverished parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Nestled between Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, two notoriously violence-plagued public housing projects, Dolores Mission lies squarely at the center of "the highest concentration of gang activity in the entire city." Under Boyle's leadership, the church community responds to the realities of its environment by establishing programs to reach out to the gangs, in keeping with the Christian gospel values it professes. Largely due to the influence of a group of brave and devout women parishioners, a new sense of "church" begins to emerge, "open and inclusive," signaling to gang members, "You are our sons [and] daughters—whether we brought you into this world or not."

One of the first projects that the parish community undertakes is an alternative school for the many gang-involved middle school kids in the area who have been expelled from the public education system. This endeavor poses particular challenges; fights break out daily among students drawn to the school from rival gangs, but the program somehow endures. Sectors of parishioners form a group called "Christian Base Communities," whereby they meet to reflect on the lessons taught by Jesus as they impact real life in the barrio. Women in the parish establish a "Committee for Peace," marching through the projects with gentle prayers and singing, providing a powerful matriarchal presence which serves to calm bellicose gang members during times of heightened tension; their efforts yield surprisingly positive results.

Since it quickly becomes clear that what gang members want most are jobs, an organization aptly called "Jobs for the Future" is launched, to place those willing to change their lives in various positions of employment in the surrounding area. The foundation, for the most part, pays their salaries. In 1992, when the rest of the city is exploding in violence in the wake of the Rodney King beating riots, Pico/Aliso is uncharacteristically calm. In a Los Angeles Times interview, Father Boyle suggests that perhaps the reason for this welcome state of events might be because "strategically employed gang members finally [have] a stake in keeping...the peace." Intrigued by this possibility, Ray Stark, a "hugely successful Hollywood agent [and] movie producer," steps forward and provides funding for an economic-development branch of Jobs for the Future, which is subsequently christened "Homeboy Industries". Homeboy Industries rapidly begins to draw gang members looking for a way out of their destructive lifestyles from the larger area of the Hollenbeck Police Division, and grows to include a bakery, a cafe, a silk-screening business, and maintenance and merchandising operations. In addition to employment, members of hundreds of different gangs come, seeking tattoo removal, counseling, and legal services.

As a man of deep faith, Father Boyle asserts unreservedly, "Not much in my life makes sense outside of God," and, as a result, the core of the endeavor behind Homeboy Industries seeks to imitate "the kind of God one ought to believe in." Cesar, a particularly "scary-looking guy" who has been incarcerated for a good portion of his young life, is moved to tears because of the priest's acceptance of him and the radical awareness that he is "a son worth having." Boyle realizes that "God's joy to love them" is a completely new idea for most gang members, and to reach homies who...

(The entire section is 1816 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear