Father Gregory Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart, is a Jesuit priest who has devoted his life to working among the urban poor in Los Angeles. While serving at Dolores Mission Church and watching his community be ravaged by gang violence, Father Boyle mobilized his parish to found Homeboy Industries in 1988. Through offering jobs and social services such as child care and tattoo removal, Homeboy Industries has become the largest gang rehabilitation program in the world. Central to their approach is providing hope and self-worth to the “homies” by treating them as full human beings, loved by God.
Tattoos on the Heart exposes the incredible hardships of life in an East LA community: broken families, substance abuse, high teenage pregnancy rates, brutal gang violence, to name a few. Father Boyle tells story after story of the real people with whom he has built relationships, through his efforts to help young people leave the gangs and live for peace. The book is not the author’s memoir, nor is it his sociological evaluation of the neighborhood and its challenges. Rather, it is meant to be devotional reading, with each chapter centered on a spiritual theme. Through stories and quotes from a wide variety of spiritual leaders, Father Boyle shares lessons learned and invites readers to adopt them as their own. He manages to teach much about communities plagued by gang violence and the best ways to help.
Those who read this book should know that the people encountered in its pages often use offensive speech, as the author shares candidly the language of his neighborhood. Additionally, the tragic violence may discourage or shock you. Many of these stories do not have happy endings. But I kept reading because Father Boyle’s point is how to live with this violence and how to work for change amidst it. You need to hear about it to appreciate the work being done.
Finally, I found myself wishing I could hear more from Father Boyle about his theological perspective on evil, suffering, and God’s wrath. Does his view of God’s transforming love include wrath towards what is hateful and evil? I am not sure. Nonetheless, I am inspired by Father Boyle’s sacrificial ministry and the power of his boundless compassion to bring about change and hope.
Note: Father Boyle recently published a follow up to this book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (2017).
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