Several years ago I came across an essay by Greg Boyle in Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality (Spring 2005). Entitled “The Voice of Those Who Sing,” it took its theme from Jeremiah: “In this place of which you say it is a waste...there will be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness...the voices of those who sing.” Through the stories of Carlos, Chico and other homies in Los Angeles, Greg Boyle wove a spirituality of kinship and compassion, an antidote to the world’s illness diagnosed by Mother Teresa as having “forgotten that we belong to each other.” The essay became one that I used regularly in classes I was teaching at the time.
So when I saw that Greg Boyle had written a book about the power of compassion, I requested a copy and offered to review it. Tatoos on the Heart does not disappoint. It brings together story after story of homeboys and homegirls whom Greg Boyle has known over the years, uplifting as well as heartbreaking stories of change, joy, suffering and dying, death and resurrection. The title of the book comes from the comment of an especially exasperating homie named Sharkey whom Greg Boyle encourages to continue with his courage and bravery: “Damn, G...I’m gonna tattoo that on my heart.” Sharkey and others whom we meet in the book challenge each of us to do some tattooing of our own, finding in those who are left out a common human hospitality, an opportunity to become more fully human.
It is important to know what this book is not. It is not a sociological treatise on gangs nor a memoir about Dolores Mission (where Greg Boyle has served as pastor) or Homeboy Industries (founded by Greg Boyle)--nor a recipe for dealing with gangs. Rather it is a collection of reflections on our common humanity, our kinship with one another no matter the circumstances. The book has a strong homiletic quality about it shaped by the “homilies at Mass in the twenty-five detention centers where I celebrate the Eucharist (juvenile halls, probation camps, and Youth Authority facilities).” But it is not “preachy,” choosing instead to illustrate the gospel with these stories about Miguel and Memo and Betito and so many others, allowing the hearer/reader to ponder the meaning in his/her own life. All of this is set within a broad framework of themes: Compassion, Dis-Grace, Gladness, Success, Kinship, etc., intended to give a very general coherence to the whole project.
As a Jesuit priest and the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, Greg Boyle brings a special vision and authenticity to these reflections. But it is the homeboys and homegirls themselves whose stories grace these pages who really bring this book to life. There is humor (a homie in the office writes a phone message: “Professor Davis at UC Irvine wants you to give a talk.YOU WILL BE CONSTIPATED”); deep insight (“You know, I’m gonna take that advice, and I’m gonna let it marinate,” pointing at his heart, “right here.”); heartbreaking sadness (“ More times than I even want to recall, I’ve knocked on the door anytime, day or middle of the night, when the mother sees me, I always just blurt it out: ‘Lo mataron a Richie’.”). Their honesty, brashness, open-hearted embrace and courage move the reader to laugh, rejoice, weep tears of loss--and above all allow the words to marinate in her/his heart. This book “hopes not only to put a human face on the gang members, but to recognize our own wounds in the broken lives and daunting struggles of the men and women in these parables.” Read it as a collection of parables, slowly, thoughtfully, so that the lives and deaths of these homies may be tattooed on your heart. [The author is donating all the net proceeds from this book to Homeboy Industries.]