Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tattoos on the Heart: Stories of Hope and Compassion, by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart: Stories of Hope and Compassion I should mention, first, for the benefit of anyone who doesn't live in Los Angeles or follow closely the arena of gang prevention, that Father Greg Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, the most well-known gang prevention program in the gang capital of the United States, Los Angeles. The organization's slogan is "Nothing stops a bullet like a job," and Father Boyle (or "G" as he is known) has made it his vocation to hire convicted felons straight out of jail and employ them in various Homeboy enterprises. They run a bakery, a screen-printing factory, they wash cars, they sell merchandise.

Tattoos on the Heart compiles the many extraordinary stories Father Boyle tells in casual sermon format, the stories that both sprinkle and structure his public speaking. He recently received an honorary degree at Occidental College's graduation, and his central message when he spoke was that we must create kinship. He said, "We are sent to create a community of kinship such that God might recognize it." That actually followed a joke that went like:

The homies, they teach me things. For example, they're teaching me how to text. I was driving a homie home, and he got a text on his phone. "What does it say?" I asked him. He said, its Louie. He says they've got him locked up in County holding facilities. He says they're charging him with being the ugliest vato in the universe. He says, "You need to come down here and show them they've got the wrong guy!"

Father Greg let everybody at the Oxy commencement laugh. Then he said that right after this went down he appreciated that these two guys used to be members of rival gangs. They used to shoot bullets at each other. Now they shoot texts at each other. He ended by repeating what he had opened with. We are sent to create a community of kinship, such that God might recognize it.

I don't know who God is, but this statement really stayed with me. It put all the infighting and disagreements in the bike advocacy community in LA in perspective. If rival gangs can get together and bake bread and hold down jobs, and even rib each other via text, surely LA's bike activists can put any hurts behind and aim for a higher purpose.

This is one of the only books I read during my first year of graduate school. I found time to read it because it forced me to - I couldn't put it down. Like an episode of This American Life, the book wanders all over the globe, from wacky circumstances to the improbable and seemingly miraculous. Fr. Boyle connects it all, somehow, makes it all attest to the immense possibility in this world, to our essential connectedness, our ineffable grace, our clumsy humanity... to deeper lessons than I can pretend to regurgitate in this review. I will need to revisit this book many times.

All of us, especially those of us who are trying to fire up social movements or make change, need spiritual leaders. I trust Father Boyle (a fact all the more amazing because of my distrust of religious institutions, especially patriarchal, homophobic ones). I trust him because of his overflowing armful of stories and the way his narration focuses on the actions of all the people around him, in all their shapes and sizes and backgrounds and quirks and graces and flaws. We must understand this kind of principled humility if we are to do any worthwhile work in this world.

Addendum: Homeboy has been hit hard by the recession. They really need your money, I mean, they really need it or they can't hire any more homies! They just laid off almost all of their staff, leaving only their core outlets, like the bakery and the printshop. Learn more about them and donate here.
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1 comment:

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