US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

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Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion
By Gregory Boyle, S.J. (Free Press, 2010)

While reading the stories of the “homies” that Father Gregory Boyle, S.J. has worked with for the past 20 years at his Homeboy Industries ministry among gang members in Los Angeles, it is easy to forget that these young people probably strike fear in most Americans. They are from the toughest neighborhoods, have shot and killed others, and have done time in prison.

But Boyle sees beyond these experiences and reminds us that we are all deserving of God’s love. These young people are not monsters but, at least on some level, scared kids who want a purpose in life. When they decide to leave gang life, they come to Boyle, known as “G,” and to Homeboy Industries for job training, education, career placement, tattoo removal, and counseling.

In Tattoos on the Heart, Boyle shares many of the lessons he has learned since he founded Homeboy Industries in 1988. His memoir is not about solving the ills of gangs, guns, and poverty; it is about the Christian call to live with the outcasts and the poor. And while Homeboy Industries has helped many get out of gangs and find jobs, Boyle is not focused on success and outcomes. He is simply present in the streets, the jails, the homes, and the lives of the people.

Boyle ties together incredible stories with important lessons, from the hilarious things that some clients say and do to the young people who start to get back on track, only to be shot and killed. Some moments are touchingly simple, as when a man describes the joy he finds from just watching his family eat dinner.

Boyle always approaches a new challenge or difficult person with a positive attitude and a compassionate heart—an attitude tested now that his ministry was forced to lay off 330 workers last May. He never judges people and is always willing to give someone a second, or 98th, chance. Boyle’s ministry is an example of how to live the gospel in our own lives by reflecting the compassion and love of God.            

This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 9, page 43).