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“Destined to become a classic of both urban reportage and contemporary spirituality” ( Los Angeles Times )— Tattoos on the Heart is a series of parables about kinship and redemption from pastor, activist, and renowned speaker, Father Gregory Boyle—now in paperback.
For twenty years, Father Gregory Boyle has run Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles—also known as the gang capital of the world. In Tattoos on the Heart, he has distilled his experience working in the ghetto into a breathtaking series of parables inspired by faith.
From giant, tattooed Cesar, shopping at JC Penney fresh out of prison, we learn how to feel worthy of God’s love. From ten-year-old Pipi we learn the importance of being known and acknowledged. From Lulu we understand the kind of patience necessary to rescue someone from the dark—as Father Boyle phrases it, we can only shine a flashlight on a light switch in a darkened room.
This is a motivating look at how to stay faithful in spite of failure, how to meet the world with a loving heart, and how to conquer shame with boundless, restorative love.
Winner of the 2011 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction
“A memorable audiobook. . . . The many triumphs small and large of the gang members and the community and, of course, the tragedies make you want tattoo Boyle’s message on your heart.”
God can get tiny, if we're not careful. I'm certain we all have an image of God that becomes the touchstone, the controlling principle, to which we return when we stray.
My touchstone image of God comes by way of my friend and spiritual director, Bill Cain, S.J. Years ago he took a break from his own ministry to care for his father as he died of cancer. His father had become a frail man, dependent on Bill to do everything for him. Though he was physically not what he had been, and the disease was wasting him away, his mind remained alert and lively. In the role reversal common to adult children who care for their dying parents, Bill would put his father to bed and then read him to sleep, exactly as his father had done for him in childhood. Bill would read from some novel, and his father would lie there, staring at his son, smiling. Bill was exhausted from the day's care and work and would plead with his dad, "Look, here's the idea. I read to you, you fall asleep." Bill's father would impishly apologize and dutifully close his eyes. But this wouldn't last long. Soon enough, Bill's father would pop one eye open and smile at his son. Bill would catch him and whine, "Now, come on." The father would, again, oblige, until he couldn't anymore, and the other eye would open to catch a glimpse of his son. This went on and on, and after his father's death, Bill knew that this evening ritual was really a story of a father who just couldn't take his eyes off his kid. How much more so God? Anthony De Mello writes, "Behold the One beholding you, and smiling."
God would seem to be too occupied in being unable to take Her eyes off of us to spend any time raising an eyebrow in disapproval. What's true of Jesus is true for us, and so this voice breaks through the clouds and comes straight at us. "You are my Beloved, in whom I am wonderfully pleased." There is not much "tiny" in that.
* * *
In 1990 the television news program 60 Minutes came to Dolores Mission Church. One of its producers had read a Sunday Los Angeles Times Magazine article about my work with gang members in the housing projects. Mike Wallace, also seeing the piece, wanted to do a report. I was assured that I'd be getting "Good Mike." These were the days when the running joke was "you know you're going to have a bad day when Mike Wallace and a 60 Minutes film crew show up at your office."
Wallace arrived at the poorest parish in Los Angeles in the stretchest of white limousines, stepped out of the car, wearing a flak jacket, covered with pockets, prepared, I suppose, for a journey into the jungle.
For all his initial insensitivity, toward the end of the visit, in a moment unrecorded, Wallace did say to me, "Can I admit something? I came here expecting monsters. But that's not what I found."
Later, in a recorded moment, we are sitting in a classroom filled with gang members, all students in our Dolores Mission Alternative School. Wallace points at me and says, "You won't turn these guys in to the police." Which seems quite silly to me at the time. I say something lame like, "I didn't take my vows to the LAPD." But then Wallace turns to a homie and grills him on this, saying over and over, "He won't turn you in, will he?" And then he asks the homie, "Why is that? Why do you think he won't turn you over to the police?" The kid just stares at Mike Wallace, shrugs, nonplussed, and says, "God ... I guess."
This is a chapter on God, I guess. Truth be told, the whole book is. Not much in my life makes any sense outside of God. Certainly, a place like Homeboy Industries is all folly and bad business unless the core of the endeavor seeks to imitate the kind of God one ought to believe in. In the end, I am helpless to explain why anyone would accompany those on the margins were it not for some anchored belief that the Ground of all Being thought this was a good idea.
* * *
Rascal is not one to take advice. He can be recalcitrant, defensive, and primed for the fight. Well into his thirties, he's a survivor. His truck gets filled with scrap metal and with this, somehow, he feeds his kids and manages to stay on this side of eviction. To his credit, he bid prison time and gang-banging good-bye a long time ago. Rascal sometimes hits me up for funds, and I oblige if I have it and if his attitude doesn't foul my mood too much. But you can't tell him anything-except this one day, he actually listens. I am going on about something-can't remember what but I can see he's listening. When I'm done, he says simply, "You know, I'm gonna take that advice, and I'm gonna let it marinate," pointing at his heart, "right here."
Perhaps we should all marinate in the intimacy of God. Genesis, I suppose, got it right-"In the beginning, God." Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, also spoke about the task of marinating in the "God who is always greater."
He writes, "Take care always to keep before your eyes, first, God." The secret, of course, of the ministry of Jesus, was that God was at the center of it. Jesus chose to marinate in the God who is always greater than our tiny conception, the God who "loves without measure and without regret." To anchor yourself in this, to keep always before your eyes this God is to choose to be intoxicated, marinated in the fullness of God. An Algerian Trappist, before his martyrdom, spoke to this fullness: "When you fill my heart, my eyes overflow."
* * *
Willy crept up on me from the driver's side. I had just locked the office and was ready to head home at 8:00 p.m.
"Shit, Willy," I say, "Don't be doin' that."
"'Spensa, G," he says, "My bad. It's just ... well, my stomach's on échale. Kick me down with twenty bones, yeah?"
"Dog, my wallet's on échale," I tell him. A "dog" is the one upon whom you can rely-the role-dog, the person who has your back. "But get in. Let's see if I can trick any funds outta the ATM."
Willy hops on board. He is a life force of braggadocio and posturing-a thoroughly good soul-but his confidence is outsize, that of a lion wanting you to know he just swallowed a man whole. A gang member, but a peripheral one at best-he wants more to regale you with his exploits than to actually be in the midst of any. In his midtwenties, Willy is a charmer, a quintessential homie con man who's apt to coax money out of your ATM if you let him. This night, I'm tired and I want to go home.
It's easier not to resist. The Food 4 Less on Fourth and Soto has the closest ATM. I tell Willy to stay in the car, in case we run into one of Willy's rivals inside.
"Stay here, dog," I tell him, "I'll be right back."
I'm not ten feet away when I hear a muffled "Hey."
It's Willy, and he's miming, "the keys," from the passenger seat of my car. He's making over-the-top, key-in-the-ignition señales.
"The radio," he mouths, as he holds a hand, cupping his ear.
I wag a finger, "No, chale." Then it's my turn to mime. I hold both my hands together and enunciate exaggeratedly, "Pray."
Willy sighs and levitates his eyeballs. But he's putty. He assumes the praying hands pose and looks heavenward-cara santucha. I proceed on my quest to the ATM but feel the need to check in on Willy only ten yards later.
I turn and find him still in the prayer position, seeming to be only half-aware that I'm looking in on him.
I return to the car, twenty dollars in hand, and get in. Something has happened here. Willy is quiet, reflective, and there is a palpable sense of peace in the vehicle. I look at Willy and say, "You prayed, didn't you?"
He doesn't look at me. He's still and quiet. "Yeah, I did."
I start the car.
"Well, what did God say to you?" I ask him.
"Well, first He said, 'Shut up and listen.'"
"So what d'ya do?"
"Come on, G," he says, "What am I sposed ta do? I shut up and listened."
I begin to drive him home to the barrio. I've never seen Willy like this. He's quiet and humble-no need to convince me of anything or talk me out of something else.
"So, son, tell me something," I ask. "How do you see God?"
"God?" he says, "That's my dog right there."
"And God?" I ask, "How does God see you?"
Willy doesn't answer at first. So I turn and watch as he rests his head on the recliner, staring at the ceiling of my car. A tear falls down his cheek. Heart full, eyes overflowing. "God ... thinks ... I'm ... firme."
To the homies, firme means, "could not be one bit better."
Not only does God think we're firme, it is God's joy to have us marinate in that.
* * *
The poet Kabir asks, "What is God?" Then he answers his own question: "God is the breath inside the breath."
Willy found his way inside the breath and it was firme.
I came late to this understanding in my own life-helped along by the grace-filled pedagogy of the people of Dolores Mission. I was brought up and educated to give assent to certain propositions. God is love, for example. You concede "God loves us," and yet there is this lurking sense that perhaps you aren't fully part of the "us." The arms of God reach to embrace, and somehow you feel yourself just outside God's fingertips.
Then you have no choice but to consider that "God loves me," yet you spend much of your life unable to shake off what feels like God only embracing you begrudgingly and reluctantly. I suppose, if you insist, God has to love me too. Then who can explain this next moment, when the utter fullness of God rushes in on you-when you completely know the One in whom "you move and live and have your being," as St. Paul writes. You see, then, that it has been God's joy to love you all along. And this is completely new.
Every time one of the Jesuits at Dolores Mission would celebrate a birthday, the same ritual would repeat itself. "You know," one of the other Jesuits would say to me, for example, "Your birthday is Wednesday. The people are throwing a 'surprise party' for you on the Saturday before." The protests are as predictable as the festivities.
"Oh come on," I'd say, "Can't we pass this year?"
"Look," one of my brothers would say to me, "This party is not for you-it's for the people."
And so I am led into the parish hall for some bogus meeting, and I can hear the people "shushing" one another-El Padre ya viene. As I step in the door, lights go on, people shout, mariachis strike themselves up. I am called upon to muster up the same award-winning look of shock from last year. They know that you know. They don't care. They don't just love you-it's their joy to love you.
The poet Rumi writes, "Find the real world, give it endlessly away, grow rich flinging gold to all who ask. Live at the empty heart of paradox. I'll dance there with you-cheek to cheek."
Dancing cumbias with the women of Dolores Mission rhymes with God's own wild desire to dance with each one of us cheek to cheek.
Meister Eckhart says "God is greater than God." The hope is that our sense of God will grow as expansive as our God is. Each tiny conception gets obliterated as we discover more and more the God who is always greater.
* * *
At Camp Paige, a county detention facility near Glendora, I was getting to know fifteen-year-old Rigo, who was about to make his first communion. The Catholic volunteers had found him a white shirt and black tie. We still had some fifteen minutes before the other incarcerated youth would join us for Mass in the gym, and I'm asking Rigo the basic stuff about his family and his life. I ask about his father.
"Oh," he says, "he's a heroin addict and never really been in my life. Used to always beat my ass. Fact, he's in prison right now. Barely ever lived with us."
Then something kind of snaps in him-an image brings him to attention.
"I think I was in the fourth grade," he begins. "I came home. Sent home in the middle of the day. Got into some pedo at school. Can't remember what. When I got home, my jefito was there. He was hardly ever there. My dad says, 'Why they send you home?' And cuz my dad always beat me, I said, 'If I tell you, promise you won't hit me?' He just said, 'I'm your father. 'Course I'm not gonna hit you.' So I told him."
Rigo is caught short in the telling. He begins to cry, and in moments he's wailing and rocking back and forth. I put my arm around him. He is inconsolable.
When he is able to speak and barely so, he says only, "He beat me with a pipe ... with ... a pipe."
When Rigo composes himself, I ask, "And your mom?" He points some distance from where we are to a tiny woman standing by the gym's entrance.
"That's her over there." He pauses for a beat, "There's no one like her." Again, some slide appears in his mind, and a thought occurs.
"I've been locked up for more than a year and a half. She comes to see me every Sunday. You know how many buses she takes every Sunday-to see my sorry ass?"
Then quite unexpectedly he sobs with the same ferocity as before. Again, it takes him some time to reclaim breath and an ability to speak. Then he does, gasping through his tears. "Seven buses. She takes ... seven ... buses. Imagine."
How, then, to imagine, the expansive heart of this God-greater than God-who takes seven buses, just to arrive at us. We settle sometimes for less than intimacy with God when all God longs for is this solidarity with us. In Spanish, when you speak of your great friend, you describe the union and kinship as being de uña y mugre-our friendship is like the fingernail and the dirt under it. Our image of who God is and what's on God's mind is more tiny than it is troubled. It trips more on our puny sense of God than over conflicting creedal statements or theological considerations.
The desire of God's heart is immeasurably larger than our imaginations can conjure. This longing of God's to give us peace and assurance and a sense of well-being only awaits our willingness to cooperate with God's limitless magnanimity.
* * *
"Behold the One beholding you and smiling." It is precisely because we have such an overactive disapproval gland ourselves that we tend to create God in our own image. It is truly hard for us to see the truth that disapproval does not seem to be part of God's DNA. God is just too busy loving us to have any time left for disappointment.
* * *
One day I receive a phone call in my office around three in the afternoon. It's from a twenty-five-year-old homie named Cesar. I have known him for most of his life. I can remember first meeting him when he was a little kid in Pico Gardens during the earthquake of 1987 when the projects had become a tent city. People lived outside in carpas well past the time of any danger. Cesar was one of the many kids seeking reassurance from me.
"Are we gonna be okay? Is this the end of the world?"
I spent every evening of those two weeks walking the tents, and I always associate Cesar with that period.
He's calling me today because he has just finished a four-year stint in prison. Turned out, earthquakes were the least of Cesar's troubles. He had joined the local gang, since there wasn't anyone around to "chase his ass" and rein him in. At this point in his life, Cesar had been locked up more often than not. Cesar and I chitchat on the phone, dispatching the niceties in short order-"It's good to be out-I'd love to see ya"-then Cesar says, "Let me just cut to the cheese."
This was not a spin I had heard on this expression before.
"You know, I just got outta the pinta and don't really have a place to stay. Right now, I'm staying with a friend in his apartment-here in El Monte-away from the projects and the hood and the homies. Y sabes qué, I don't got no clothes. My lady she left me, and she burned all my clothes, you know, in some anger toward me, I guess."
I'm waiting for him to cut to the cheese.
"So I don't got no clothes," he says. "Can you help me?"
"Sure, son," I say, "Look, it's three now. I'll pick you up after work, at six o'clock."
I drive to the apartment at the appointed hour, and I'm surprised to see Cesar standing on the sidewalk waiting for me-I'm used to searching for homies when asked to retrieve them. I guess you might say that Cesar is a scary-looking guy. It's not just the fact that he's large and especially, fresh out of prison, newly "swole" from lifting weights. He exudes menace. So there he is, standing and waiting for me. When he sees it's me, this huge ex-con does this bouncing up and down, yippy-skippy, happy-to-see-ya, hand-clapping gleeful jig.
He flies into my car and throws his arms around me. "When I saw you right now, G, I got aaaallllll happy!"
There was some essence to him that hadn't changed from that child wanting to know that the world was safe from earthquakes.
Excerpted from Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle Copyright © 2010 by Gregory Boyle. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Introduction: Dolores Mission and Homeboy Industries 1
Chapter 1 God, I Guess 19
Chapter 2 Dis-Grace 41
Chapter 3 Compassion 61
Chapter 4 Water, Oil, Flame 83
Chapter 5 Slow Work 109
Chapter 6 Jurisdiction 129
Chapter 7 Gladness 147
Chapter 8 Success 167
Chapter 9 Kinship 187
Posted July 18, 2010
I read Tattoos On The Heart almost in a single sitting. Not often do I find a book that grips me like this one did. MAN! It really made me think about what I'm bringing to the world. I'm an upper middle class white guy from the midwest, about as far removed as I can be from the Los Angeles latino gang world Greg has put himself in the middle of. Talk about courage and walking the talk of Christianity! This book should be a must-read for anyone who has ever wondered if Christians are real and authentic. I wish more were like Greg. Heck, I wish I was more like Greg! A priest who lives among the people, talks like the people, serves the people, helps the people, celebrates with the people, encourages the people, and mourns with the people. The word "inspiring" almost seems too small to describe this book!
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Posted May 8, 2010
Father Boyle has been living out his faith and his calling for more than 20 years. How smart and talented people have the heart to love so deeply is a cause for much reflection. Most of the really smart and talented people I meet are so into "self" that there's no space for the compassion we encounter in "TATOOS ON THE HEART."
You'll find each page a source of inspiration and a challenge to reflect..
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Posted April 24, 2010
Tattoos of the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle is the kind of book I want to press into the hands of everyone I know to make them read it and love it as I do. Boyle is the creator of Homeboy Industries which employs gang members in Los Angeles. Originally a bakery, it has grown to a silk screening business, graffiti removal business, plus more. They provide counseling, tattoo removal, and a wide range of other services for the entire community. Boyle fills the book with an assortment of anecdotes from the hilarious to the outrageous to the tragic. While reading, I kept sharing different stories aloud with my husband, because they are so stunning, I just had to share them. The message that Boyle wants his readers to get is that every single one of these gangbangers, no matter how hardcore, are in need of love, and to know that they have personal worth and value. He has faced a lot of prejudice in his dealings with them, and to the average reader, some of these people are truly frightening, but Boyle makes them always human and fragile. He speaks their language and gives them the opportunity to get a job, and to shatter the limitations imposed upon them by a variety of societal conditions. Boyle doesn't just share the "success" stories, but he wants to change the reader's definition of success. It can't be measured by a number of jobs or education, but by the number of hearts changed permanently by an organization who pours out the unconditional love of God. I dare you to read this book and not be moved by the stories within. Try not to cry as a mother loses yet another son to senseless violence. Don't smile when reading as a former gangbanger shares how he reads stories with his children each night before bed. These stories will tattoo themselves onto your heart.
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Posted July 9, 2010
The stories in this book were so touching. There were times I was crying and times I was laughing. Hope and compassion are really great words to use when talking about this book.
There were so many stories, and while they were all touching they were presented in a way that seemed a bit jumpy to me. If the stories had flowed better I would have been much happier with this one. But it was still pretty good as it is.
The language took a bit for me to get used to. Greg Boyle's language shocked me the most. There were a few times that he used some swear words, and all I could think was this is a man of cloth.... But given the situations that he was in, and the people he was in those situations with the language was understandable. It just shocked me the first few times.
The work that Greg Boyle has done working with the Homies is amazing. The stories he has gained in the last 20 years are a testament to his work. These stories range from sad, to touching, to happy. It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster reading this one, but I think it was well worth it.
There is a religious message in this book, and even though it is repeated many times throughout the book I didn't feel as if Greg Boyle was trying to be pushy. For those that don't like to read religious books I would say you should give this one a go regardless. The stories really are touching and they filled me with a feeling of hope.
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Posted August 23, 2014
Father Boyle is an amazing man, full of heart and courage. He's also a talented writer, breaking the tension of the heartbreak with his keen sense of humor. I learned so much about gang life and what the members go through to drive them into gang life.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 11, 2014
Posted August 25, 2013
I have read this book three times and listened to it on audio book many more. Having 1st met Fr. Gregory Boyle at a fundraising event in LA where he was a guest speaker I became fascinated with his story. The messages in this book are amazing. I have not met many people that have been given the gift of not judging others but Fr. Boyle has this gift. The stories are sometimes very funny and they will have you in tears. A must read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 25, 2013
A very powerful book that held my attention all the way through. Gregory Boyle is truly a man of God, doing God's work in changing many people's lives. He should be given a Nobel Peace Prize for all that his group does.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 9, 2013
The first I learned of Father Boyle he was speaking at a church I was visiting. I was so moved by his words I bought his book. This is a moving tribute to what one man can accomplish with faith and an open heart.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 15, 2013
Posted February 10, 2013
Posted November 5, 2012
Posted November 2, 2012
A friend recommended this book, and I am eternally grateful for it. Greg Boyle gives us an insider's view of the environment that leads to and perpetuates gangs. He points out that many of the members, male and female, have virtually raised themselves and find their only group identify and belonging in a gang. And he gives us the brutal truth that goes with that belonging, as well as the flashes of humor and fun that occur.
Reading this book opens your heart to the young men and women who expect to die young and only hope to have children first, if not to watch them grow. It is tragic and funny and gives an intimate look at how a community can show compassion and love and how the gang members can learn to overcome their affiliations. There is no happy ending here, because early death is the norm in gangs and gang neighborhoods; but the uplift from the transformations witnessed along the way will keep you soaring.
Posted October 5, 2012
Posted July 8, 2012
Posted April 3, 2012
This is a book that I keep going back to and rereading. It makes you laugh, cry and feel that you are loved beyond measure. It touches you right at the core. This book is a treasure!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 29, 2011
"Tattoos on the Heart" is a captivating and edifying book. The real life testimonies of conversion and transformation give witness to the love and hope of Jesus Christ. As a fellow cleric I can testify that Fr. Boyle is a man of prayer who has humbled himself to become all things to all men. Don't be alarmed by Father's use of street slang. It is a pastoral approach to meet people where they are at. This book consists of realistic accounts of Christ's resurrection power in action.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 2, 2011
great reading. Father 'G' has accomplished much as a peacemaker among many angry young people. God has used him to bring love to an unloved community. the only problem i had with the reading was the hispanic slang. but overall i thought it was funny and thought provoking.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 18, 2010
To have the kind of faith that comes across in this book can only be found in one way, you have had to lived it. This book is amazing. I'd also recommend that you buy "When God Stopped Keeping Score" which takes an intimate look at God's role in forgiveness. It is a must read if you have ever felt anger, guilt, resentment or pain. It's here on B & N and will change you life if given the chance.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 18, 2010
I have had the privelege of hearing Fr. Boyle speak. This book is just as amazing as his speeches. He has worked closely for years with a group of individuals that most people would want nothing to do with. The effects of his work on countless lives is truly incredible. While he ties in faith, you do not have to be religious to really appreciate the book and its message. Fr. Boyle's message goes beyond religion. He speaks of the value of human life and never treating anyone as if their life is worth less than anyone else's.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.