It has been a long time since I have read a book that impacted me more than this one. In places I laughed out loud reading this book in a room by myself. In other places I cried at the challenges some kids have to face just because of where they were born. The book is Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle, a man loving broken lives at ground zero of the gang culture in Los Angeles. It is a deserving NY Times Best-seller and one of the best reads I’ve had in recent months. And it’s all true. This isn’t a fictional representation of God’s love, but a life breathing in its full reality and sorting out how to pass that love on to others who seemed most predisposed to reject it.
He begins with an assignment to pastor at the Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights, and ends up creating Homeboy Industries to give gang kids their first jobs, teach them how to work, remove their tattoos and give them a reason to live beyond the wasted world of gang life.
Now I know some of you are going to get a bit cheeky because it was written by a Roman Catholic priest and you’re going to get all bothered by what your disagreements with Catholicism. That will be to your loss. There isn’t much Catholic theology here. This is a Jesuit who ended up assigned to a parish in the heart of LA right in the middle of its two biggest gangs and found a way to love the people there that will make your heart thrill. This isn’t a bunch of religious gobbledegook, but a man living the reality
Some of you are going to be bothered by the coarse language as he captures the vocabulary of the barrio he lives in. That will be your loss as well. It is not gratuitious, but an important part of the story as he reveals Jesus’ ability to make himself known at the most brutal edge of human brokenness.
This is a great love story of transformed kids, told with humor and realness in ways that will inspire you to love the people around you. It is also filled with failure and tragedy as he buries some of the 168 who died in the senseless violence of a gang-riddled neighborhood. And there isn’t a taste of guilt in it for people who aren’t doing what he’s doing where he’s doing it. Seemingly this is not his assignment; it is his joy.
Here are just a few excerpts:
I will admit that the degree of difficulty here is exceedingly high. Kids I love killing kids I love. There is nothing neat in carving space for both in our compassion…
Isn’t the highest honing of compassion that which is hospitable to victim and victimizer both?
Jesus says if you love those who love you, big wow (which I believe is the original Greek). He doesn’t suggest that we cease to love those who love us when he nudges us to love our enemies. Nor does Jesus think the harder thing is the better thing. He knows it’s just the harder thing. But to love the enemy and to find some spaciousness for the victimizer, as well as the victim, resembles more the expansive compassion of God. That’s why you do it.
To be in the world who God is.
Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment about how they carry it. (p. 66)
Jesus’ strategy was a simple one: He eats with them. Precisely to those paralyzed in this toxic shame, Jesus says, “I will eat with you.” He goes where love has not yet arrived, and he “gets his grub on.” Eating with outcasts rendered them acceptable. (p. 70)
Jesus was always too busy being faithful to worry about success. (p. 178)
This book is a graduate school course on loving others. It made me want to love more freely the people around me in the simplest ways. Unloved people do the most destructive things to themselves and others. It’s the most basic cry of the human soul and what is most unmet in a culture that lives by independence and personal expedience. So many people have no idea what it means to be loved by someone and that alone sparks the potential for great transformation. What’s so real here is not the extraordinary place he is doing it in, but the potential we all have to love the people God has put around us.
One thing I notice about people who seem to end up in extreme places of loving others is they got there quite naturally as they simple lived out their faith. Rarely do I find effective people off to wild corners of the earth because they felt God demanded it of them, but because they fell in love with people there and couldn’t let them go through their painful existence alone. I love that. The message is: love where you are and see where God takes you, not go find some despicable place to love the most difficult people on the planet.
As an added bonus, you will never listen to “O Holy Night” again without finally understanding what “the soul felt its worth” actually means and its power to transform even the most twisted life into something, lovely, beautiful and holy!