It’s happened again: I’ve fallen in love, head over heels. I haven’t done this for a while, years actually. But this time it’s a doozy.
As usual, the object of my affection is a book. This one is titled, quite appropriately, Tattoos on the Heart. It’s a quote from a gang member in Los Angeles who was struggling to quit his life of violence. Father Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries, was telling the young man that in trying to leave his gang, he was acting with far more courage than he’d ever shown shooting at enemies in his hood. The homie looked at Boyle and replied, “Damn, G. . . . I’m gonna tattoo that on my heart.”
This beautiful book is filled with lines that could be fodder for any of us to tattoo on our hearts. It’s a veritable manual for how to live compassionately. And as we all know, compassion is a requirement for those of us who hope to practice the art of Seva.
Boyle grew up in “the gang capital of the world,” as he calls impoverished L.A. Tattoos is a collection of themed stories from his years of ministering to the young men and women who are driven to gangs for a sense of worth and respectability. Most of these children, he writes, are never given even a smidgen of what the Japanese call amae, a sense of being deeply cherished by someone close to them. I grew up swimming in amae; I knew to my bones that my parents loved me and would do anything to keep me safe. That’s not often the case with kids in the ghettos. So they must look elsewhere for their sense of belonging.
Boyle’s mission is to “reteach a thing its loveliness,” as the poet Galway Kinnell writes. That thing, of course, is the child who has joined a gang, every child. Boyle has built Homeboy Industries into a thriving network of resources and employment opportunities. There are job and mental health counseling, tattoo removal, educational and legal services, and more. Former gang members can get jobs in the Homeboy silkscreen shop, the café, catering service, bakery, and a number of other enterprises. In this way Boyle and his colleagues provide gang members a way out of a violent life that will quite likely kill them.
I heard of Boyle years ago. In fact, he’s so well known that I didn’t expect to be writing about him here. I like to feature the quiet heroes of Seva. But my friend Laura Strickland lent me his book, and I—well, you know. Stars in my eyes. He has so much he can teach me.
This is service as it’s meant to be done, with the helpers and those being helped working face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder. To get a job at Homeboy, you must show that you’re ready to leave your gang. You must be willing to work alongside others from rival gangs. And you have to open up enough to show Boyle and his staff at least a tiny glimpse of who you really are. Why you hurt so much. Why you long to be retaught your own loveliness.
The beauty of the book resides in the way Boyle uses his tales to teach us how to live as Jesus lived. Some examples:
“Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe of what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”
“We see in the homies what they don’t see in themselves, until they do.”
And my personal favorite, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a covenant among equals.”
Yes, Greg Boyle is a Seva Superstar. And judging from what he’s written in Tattoos, his status is well deserved. May we all do service work that helps others find the loveliness within.