Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Tattooed Heart of Gregory Boyle


Jesus was not a man for others. He was one with others...

The "no matter whatness" of God dissolves the toxicity of shame and fills us with tender mercy.
Gregory Boyle, Tattoos On The Heart (2010)

When the seed of Homeboy Industries was planted by Father Gregory Boyle and the single mothers and grandmothers of East L.A. two decades ago, it was simply a practical response to a dire need: jobs. Indeed, finding employment for ex-gangbangers in the innercity is the foundation for how the gospel miraculously fleshes itself out for Boyle. That, and his very presence in the lives of these homies, constantly reminding them--through words and action--just how precious they are in God's sight. This two-pronged gameplan (employment opportunity + Boyle's vintage touch) has transformed so many formerly hopeless situations that modern Christian America should be begging for the secret formula. But as his first book project Tattoos On The Heart suggests, all Boyle has to offer are stories. And that's more than enough.

Boyle is the perfect candidate to teach us how to be storied into the image of God. He's just a Southern California suburban white boy from a large middle class Catholic family. He went to Loyola Marymount and then got his MA in English Literature before going to Bolivia to do the work of the church in the mid-80s. He was all-set to run student services at Santa Clara University when the Third World evangelized him: "I knew that the poor had some privileged delivery system for giving me access to the gospel."

Since then, he has worked tirelessly as the parish priest at Dolores Mission Church, extending employment search to t-shirt screening, a bakery, a cafe and the largest tattoo removal service in North America. But in the midst of strife and pain and utter despair (he has buried more than 150 young men and women who have died in the crossfires of gang violence), Boyle's ministry seems to be far from burdensome. His life is One Big Adventure, seeking and finding God in the most unusual people and circumstances. God, according to Father Greg's reading of the Bible (through the lens of his own unique experiences), is the One who is "just too busy loving us to have any time left for disappointment" and, everyday he gets to hang with his homies, Boyle is utterly committed to "the task of returning them to themselves," dispelling the epidemic of shame and disgrace that drown young people flailing through the riptide of innercity life.

Listening to Boyle tell his stories to an overflow audience at a multi-ethnic Catholic Church in Southern California last week, I marveled at how adamant he was that this kind of gospel work is everyone's call. Here's a priest who looks like Santa Claus and rarely wears his professional collar, advocating for the "priesthood of all believers" while periodically cussing to enunciate the very real life of his beloved homies--it's gloriously sacramental hearing a priest bouncing a well-timed "ass," "shit" or "damn" off the sacred walls of a church building (I think he gets away with it because he's just quoting his homies).

Tattoos is a spa for the heart. It's a whole book of scenes like that moment in Hoosiers when Jimmy Chitwood pledges allegiance to his controversial coach on the hotseat ("Coach goes, I go. Coach stays, I stay.") or the part in Shawshank when Andy Dufrense risks everything by telling the prison workers he will do their taxes if he supplies all the prisoners on his work crew with cold beers after tarring the roof on a hot day (or in the Gospel when Jesus tells Zaccheus that he's going to stay at his house)? There are hundreds of these kinds of episodes in Tattoos. The life of this courageous middle-aged man and his knuckledheaded homies will wrap your whole being in the Love of God.

But don't take my word for it--this is how my friend Tiffany (who works at the grittiest junior high school in Durham, North Carolina) connected to Boyle's journey:

This book helped me place where a lot of my anxiety was coming from. It was coming from this immense pressure to find the magic thing that would cause me to "be inspired" and "change the world." I guess I have been unconsciously buying into that part of our culture that romanticizes everything and lets Hollywood narrate these sentimental, false realities that we all want to believe in but that, in reality, cut off and hide all the gritiness of real life. True transformation--the kind that I need to love as Father Greg loves-- comes from a lifelong process of social, spiritual, mental, meditative formation, not through shallow inspiration. Father Greg is the kind of person who lives from a very deep place. His ability to live so radically, gracefully, and beautifully has been nurtured through years of intentional, humble, communion with and internalization of God. (And I don't mean in some pietistic, separatist way but am talking about a process that has involved encounters with God on several levels and in countless senses).

I'm not sure I'm explaining this well, but my teaching job was placed in perspective for me. It is one piece of my story that will form me and shape me, as I respond, providing me an opportunity to develop a depth from which I, likewise, may live more faithfully. This job is not everything. My one shot to make a difference! It's a place that God has allowed me stand in at this particular point in my journey, and through my encounters with my students as I more urgently and confidently try to learn them and reframe things for them and dignify them, I am going through my own small process that is only a reflection of God's larger one.


So, if you haven't read Tattoos yet, don't borrow it. As Father Greg says, "Go buy your own damn book" (all the proceeds go to Homeboy Industries which saves the state of California an estimated $40 million due to reduced crime and prison sentences). In a world of Reality TV that isn't really "reality" at all, Boyle's real life gospel adventure beckons us to live with intentionality, risk and playfulness as we widen our "circle of kinship" to all those who have been demonized, dismissed and deplored--those Jesus called "the least of these." There's no amount of technology that can remove what Tattoos will do to your heart.

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