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.

IMG_1634When 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”?

 

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  1. Carol Dikovitsky on January 14, 2013 at 10:07 am

    I, too, found this to be an amazing book, that stretched my own ideas about God’s loving and provident care.

  2. Stephen Steinbeiser on January 14, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    Thank you for this insightful book review — can’t wait to read it!
    SS

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on January 15, 2013 at 1:35 pm

      Dear Stephen, Let me know what you think of the book after you read it. I’d be interested in knowing your perspective on the book. Thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie

  3. mary james on January 14, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Yes! I have read it and thanks for the reminder about this wonderful book! It did and does stretch my heart and makes me grateful for people like Fr. Gregory. It motivates me to do more “heart” work in my own life and ministry.

  4. Patti Shea on January 14, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Thank you. It sounds like a good read.

  5. Kathleen on January 14, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    I read this book and was touched by the changes in the “gang members”.
    I love the definition of church…for everyone!

  6. Chandra on January 16, 2013 at 11:05 am

    I will definitely read it. We had a presentation at our church by some ex-gang members in a similar intervention program. It was amazing. They were amazing. We are so blessed to see God’s grace at work in our world.

    Another book that I read that challenged my perceptions of faith is “Eat This Bread” by Sara Miles. Very thought-provoking.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  7. SHIRL on January 19, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    I will definitely read this book. Our church does not deal with gangs, although we are in that kind of area, but we do have AA meetings and ESL classes. You know I never really thought about the people that attended these groups. Your intro to this book has got me interested in their stories and being more compassionite to their situation.
    thanks
    shirl

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on January 20, 2013 at 9:29 am

      Thank you Carol, Mary James, Patti, Kathleen, Chandra, and Shirl–for your “testimonials” concerning the book and for your information on what your churches are doing concerning the issues raised in the book. Gratefully, Sr. Melannie

  8. Francismarie on January 20, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Melannie,
    I read the book and it openned a renewed avenue for lifting up those who need prayer daily (including yours truly).
    Thanks for your Sunflower seed sharing! smfm

  9. Chris Keil on February 4, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Sr. Melannie,
    I purchased this book based on your sunflower seeds. I am almost finished and I am loving it! It’s so scary to think what we as adults and society are doing to our youth today. In the end, it’s not really about money, clothes, status or anything else, it’s about loving and being loved for who we are. Thank you for your reflection. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to live with such pain, sorrow and in some ways despair, and yet there is a lot of joy and celebration too. I will pray for all those involved and the wonderful workers who are helping out. Truly a picture of “church” in today’s world.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 4, 2013 at 8:11 pm

      Dear Chris, I’m so glad you loved the book. It is really inspiring–and (as you say) it does present “a picture of ‘church’ in today’s world.” Thank you! Melannie

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