Some years ago, my dear friend Christina gave me a book for Christmas called Barking at the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Fr. Gregory Boyle. I was captivated by the story this Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries told about the years he has spent ministering to gang members in Los Angeles. Turns out, it was his second book, so I eagerly added his first: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion to my “to read” list.
As reading serendipity would have it, a few years passed as my “to read” list grew and grew and I didn’t get around to reading Tattoos on the Heart. Last Saturday, Dennis and I had a date to the library to find history books for background studying for my second semester. Tattoos on the Heart caught my eye. I started reading it right then and was captivated again.
So many stories in this book brought tears to my eyes. Fr. Gregory’s compassion and affection for the young men he has come alongside is so moving. Here’s one story that touched my heart:
I had a twenty-three-year old homie named Miguel working for me on our graffiti crew. As with a great many of our workers, I had met him years earlier while he wad detained. He was an extremely nice kid, whose pleasantness was made all the move remarkable by the fact that he had been completely abandoned by his family. Prior to their rejection of him, they had mistreated, abused, and scarred him plenty. He calls me one New Year’s Day. “Happy New Year, G.”
“Hey, that’s very thoughtful of ya, dog,” I say. “You know, Miguel, I was thinkin’ of ya – you know, on Christmas. So, what ya do for Christmas?” I asked knowing that he had no family to welcome him in.
“Oh, you know, I was right here,” meaning his tiny little apartment, where he lives alone.
“All by yourself?” I ask.
“Oh no,” he quickly says, “I invited homies from the crew – you know, vatos like me who didn’t had no place to go for Christmas.”
He names the five homies who came over – all former enemies from rival gangs.
“Really,” I tell him, “that sure was nice of you.”
But he’s got me revved and curious now. “So,” I ask him, “what did you do?”
“Well,” he says, “you’re not gonna believe this… but… I cooked a turkey.” You can feel his pride right through the phone….
I said, “Wow, that’s impressive. What else did you have besides the turkey?”
“Just that. Just turkey,” he says. His voice tapers to a hush. “Yeah. The six of us, we just sat there, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done.”
One would be hard-pressed to imagine something more sacred and ordinary that these six orphans staring at the oven together….
Not long after this, I give Miguel a ride home after work. I had long been curious about Miguel’s own certain resilience. When we arrive at his apartment, I say, “Can I ask you a question? How do you do it? I mean, given all you’ve been through – all the pain and stuff you’ve suffered – how are you like the way you are?”
I genuinely want to know and Miguel has his answer at the ready. “You know, I always suspected that there was something of goodness in me, but I just couldn’t find it. Until one day,” – he quiets a bit – “one day, I discovered it here, in my heart. I found it… goodness. And ever since that day, I have always known who I was.” He pauses, caught short by his own truth, (reteaching loveliness) and turns and looks at me. “And now, nothing can touch me.”
Most of Fr. Gregory’s work is simply loving these young gang members who have experienced much pain, shame, and violence in their lives. Returning men and women to the goodness that God has put in their heart is his life’s work. It’s so inspiring to read these stories of compassion and the transformational work God can do through love.