I just read a fantastic, moving, and inspiring book, Tattoos on the Heart – The Power of Boundless Compassion. It is written by Rev. Gregory J. Boyle, S.J., a Jesuit Priest who started working with gangs in East LA in 1985. This area was notorious for the highest concentration of gang activity in Los Angeles which was known then as the gang capital of the world. Father Gregory founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. He created a number of businesses to give gang members who are ready to change, an opportunity for employment. But more than that, Homeboy Industries is a place where former gang members are surrounded by unconditional love and acceptance. What inspires me the most, is that “Father G”, or “G-dog”, as the “homeboys and girls” call him, truly walks his talk to a degree not always seen in religious organizations.
Father Gregory’s words and his way of being gives gang members, who he says are “people who carry pain too much to bear”, a sense of belonging. It helps them see the truth about themselves, that they are worthy of love. That they are worthy period.
He states that what his organization stands for is, “a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgement at how they carry it”. It is this very compassion, which he embodies, that creates a “kinship” which has healed, transformed, and empowered thousands of gang members. Father Gregory helps them realize that they are not the pain and the abuse they have suffered, but something far greater. They experience the goodness within themselves, which catapults them into new possibilities.
This facilitates the process of “returning them to themselves.” Isn’t this the only really worthwhile journey for any of us? At that moment, when we find the place of real sacredness within ourselves, resilience arrives, then nothing can touch us again.
In Father Gregory’s heart and mind there is no “us” and “them”. He embraces the outcasts of society, the ones that have been marginalized, not just by “helping” them, but by “being one” with them, so the margins disappear. This kinship helps to dismantle their disempowered mindset born from pain and abuse. It helps them let go of shame and disgrace, despair and hopelessness, so they can rebuild themselves from the inside out. Kinship taps into the innate goodness and sacredness that’s inside each of us, regardless of who we are, or what our place in society is.
Tattoos on the Heart brought some of my own judgements to my awareness and helped me to open my heart to a greater understanding and compassion. Beneath the surface we are all the same—gang members, CEOs or saints—pure goodness.
Father Gregory’s model of empowering gang members and helping to break the cycle of violence and poverty has found its way into many communities nationally and internationally. What an amazing legacy!
I had the privilege of hearing Father Gregory speak at a recent community networking conference in Los Angeles and witnessed first hand his wonderful ability to inspire others to do good. I felt honored to shake his hand!
I highly recommend this insightful book to anybody, for the many touching stories of realness and depth that had me in tears more than once, and for its wisdom told with humor that had me in stitches many times.