TATTOOS ON THE HEART, by Gregory Boyle

In this uplifting and intimate memoir, Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle recounts his three decades of working with “homies” in the barrios of East Los Angeles, an area with an extreme concentration of murderous activity, including over 1,000 gangs with almost 90,000 members. I was by turns mesmerized, horrified, and enthralled as I read.

In each chapter, we benefit from Boyle’s hard-earned wisdom, inspired by his faith, serving alongside the gang members and loving them as Jesus intends us to love others (our neighbors), amply demonstrating the impact that unconditional love and compassion can have on lives. Father Greg, or G-Dog as he is called by the homies, saw the need for a rehabilitation center and started Homeboy Industries in 1986 to provide jobs, tattoo removal, job training and encouragement for members of rival enemy gangs. Their motto, printed on tee shirts is “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

Homeboy Industries has grown to a $8.5 million headquarters, housing Homeboy Bakery, a beautiful Homegirl Café, a catering service, various craft industries, and a Homeboy Diner.  It currently employs about 300 former gang members, daily serving about 1,000 customers, and monthly provides 500 treatments for tattoo removal.

The book distills his experience working in the ghetto into a breathtaking series of stories which capture and convey the lessons he learned from kids who have struggled through challenging times and tried to turn around their lives. In each Chapter the reader benefits from Boyle’s wonderful, hard-earned wisdom. With an ear for dialogue, he deftly captures the expressive flavor and colorful language of the Spanglish patois spoken there.  That alone makes Tattoos of the Heart remarkable literature.

The individual stories he tells are woven into parables that will break your heart, as many are about young gang members who start to get on track, only to be randomly shot and killed. It’s difficult to keep a dry eye. Manny was a boy covered with tattoos caught in the crossfire of gang warfare and died on the emergency room operating table. He had enrolled in community college, but was cut down before he ever attended a class.  A nurse who was evidently disgusted by his tattoos, told another “Who would want this monster’s heart?” The other nurse reacted angrily, “How dare you call this kid a monster. He belonged to somebody.  Shame on you.”

Then there was Jason, a young crack dealer, the son of two addicts, who, after rejecting several of Boyle’s invitations, finally got a job with Homeboy Industries. He left his anger behind him, eventually had a home and family, and was looking forward to his daughter’s baptism and had bought her a new dress. But then he was gunned down in the streets.

Luis, also a drug dealer, came to Greg after his daughter was born. He was hired to work in the bakery.  He got a car, a home and a whole new life. One evening, while loading his car, he was shot and killed by some gang members who ventured into his neighborhood barrio.

There are other stories like those of Manny, Luis, and Jason, kids who Greg befriended, turned their lives around, looked to the future with hope, only to end up one more victim of the violence of the LA streets.

But then there are other stories of some who turned their lives around. Bandit came to see Greg after being locked up for selling crack. Boyle got him a job in a warehouse, and Bandit got married and had three kids.  He told Greg he was proud of himself, showing people were wrong who called me a “Bueno para nada” (Good for nothing).

Boyle sees beyond these experiences and reminds us that we are all deserving of God’s love. These young people are not monsters, but scared kids who want a purpose in life. He challenges the reader to “stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” This is a holy book about the power and impact of unconditional love and compassion.

Considering that he has buried more than 150 young people from gang-related violence, many of which he has known since childhood, and called them by the names their mothers used, the joyful tenor of the book remains an astounding literary and spiritual feat. Tattoos on the Heart, which reminds us that no life is less valuable than another, is destined to become a classic of contemporary spirituality. But, be careful — reading it may change your thinking, and your ministry!

—Ken Johnson

P.S. The book left a tattoo on my heart too.

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