Recently I read an incredible book called Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest. For twenty years Fr. Boyle has worked with gangs in Los Angeles where there are an estimated 1,100 gangs and 86,000 gang members. Fr. Boyle founded and runs Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program that offers jobs, education, mental health services, and tattoo removal for former gang members.
When I say the book is about gangs, your first thought might be, “Why would I want to read a book about such a depressing topic?” Or “What do violent gangs have to do with my life?” Those were my thoughts when a trusted friend handed me the book saying, “Read this, Melannie. It’s wonderful!” I did. And she was absolutely right.
Despite its serious topic, the book is amazingly hopeful and even funny. Yes, there are stories that will break your heart—like when Father presides at the funeral of yet another teenage gang member (he has buried 168), or when one gang member tells Father, “My spirit is so sore. It hurts to be me.” But there are other stories that will uplift your heart—like when one former gang member, upon hearing that Fr. Boyle has leukemia, asks him with tears in his eyes, “Father, what do I have that you need?”
The book is divided into nine chapters with titles such as these: “God, I Guess,” “Compassion,” “Gladness,” “Success,” and “Kinship.” Each chapter is filled not only with powerful stories but also with spiritual wisdom. Here are three gems:
“God, I guess, is more expansive than every image we think rhymes with God. How much greater is the God we have than the one we think we have.”
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a covenant between equals…Compassion is always…about a shift from the cramped world of self-preoccupation into a more expansive place of fellowship, true kinship.”
“Jesus was not a man for others. He was a man with others. There is a world of difference. Jesus didn’t just seek the rights of lepers. He touched the leper even before he got around to curing him. He didn’t champion the cause of the outcast. He was the outcast.”
Fr. Boyle raises questions about what it means to be a church. He serves as pastor of Dolores Mission Church, the poorest church in the Los Angeles archdiocese. One day a man comes to visit the church where he was baptized and made his first communion many years before. He sees the gang members standing around the bell tower, the homeless men and women being fed in great numbers in the parking lot, and people arriving for their AA meetings and ESL classes. The man shakes his head as if disgusted, and says, “You know, this used to be a church.” Fr. Boyle thinks: “Most people around here think it is finally a church.’”
I recommend Tattoos on the Heart if you want to meet unforgettable people and hear amazing stories of down-to-earth love that will widen your perspective, challenge your assumptions, strengthen your faith, and quicken your heart.
Have any of you read this book?
Would you recommend any other books that “widened your heart, challenged your assumptions, strengthened your faith, or quickened your heart”?