Gregory Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, CA. Now in its 30th year, Homeboy traces its roots to when Boyle, a Jesuit priest with advanced degrees in English and theology, served as pastor of Dolores Mission Church, then the poorest Catholic parish in Los Angeles, which also had the highest concentration of gang activity in the city. Homeboy has become the largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and reentry program in the world, and employs and trains gang members and felons in a range of social enterprises, as well as provides critical services to thousands of men and women each year who walk through its doors seeking a better life. Father Boyle has received the California Peace Prize, the James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year Award, and the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal. He was inducted into the California Hall of Fame and named a 2014 Champion of Change by the White House. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.
Tattoos on the Heart 1
God, I Guess
God can get tiny, if we’re not careful. I’m certain we all have an image of God that becomes the touchstone, the controlling principle, to which we return when we stray.
My touchstone image of God comes by way of my friend and spiritual director, Bill Cain, S.J. Years ago he took a break from his own ministry to care for his father as he died of cancer. His father had become a frail man, dependent on Bill to do everything for him. Though he was physically not what he had been, and the disease was wasting him away, his mind remained alert and lively. In the role reversal common to adult children who care for their dying parents, Bill would put his father to bed and then read him to sleep, exactly as his father had done for him in childhood. Bill would read from some novel, and his father would lie there, staring at his son, smiling. Bill was exhausted from the day’s care and work and would plead with his dad, “Look, here’s the idea. I read to you, you fall asleep.” Bill’s father would impishly apologize and dutifully close his eyes. But this wouldn’t last long. Soon enough, Bill’s father would pop one eye open and smile at his son. Bill would catch him and whine, “Now, come on.” The father would, again, oblige, until he couldn’t anymore, and the other eye would open to catch a glimpse of his son. This went on and on, and after his father’s death, Bill knew that this evening ritual was really a story of a father who just couldn’t take his eyes off his kid. How much more so God? Anthony De Mello writes, “Behold the One beholding you, and smiling.”
God would seem to be too occupied in being unable to take Her eyes off of us to spend any time raising an eyebrow in disapproval. What’s true of Jesus is true for us, and so this voice breaks through the clouds and comes straight at us. “You are my Beloved, in whom I am wonderfully pleased.” There is not much “tiny” in that.
* * *
In 1990 the television news program 60 Minutes came to Dolores Mission Church. One of its producers had read a Sunday Los Angeles Times Magazine article about my work with gang members in the housing projects. Mike Wallace, also seeing the piece, wanted to do a report. I was assured that I’d be getting “Good Mike.” These were the days when the running joke was “you know you’re going to have a bad day when Mike Wallace and a 60 Minutes film crew show up at your office.”
Wallace arrived at the poorest parish in Los Angeles in the stretchest of white limousines, stepped out of the car, wearing a flak jacket, covered with pockets, prepared, I suppose, for a journey into the jungle.
For all his initial insensitivity, toward the end of the visit, in a moment unrecorded, Wallace did say to me, “Can I admit something? I came here expecting monsters. But that’s not what I found.”
Later, in a recorded moment, we are sitting in a classroom filled with gang members, all students in our Dolores Mission Alternative School. Wallace points at me and says, “You won’t turn these guys in to the police.” Which seems quite silly to me at the time. I say something lame like, “I didn’t take my vows to the LAPD.” But then Wallace turns to a homie and grills him on this, saying over and over, “He won’t turn you in, will he?” And then he asks the homie, “Why is that? Why do you think he won’t turn you over to the police?” The kid just stares at Mike Wallace, shrugs, nonplussed, and says, “God . . . I guess.”
This is a chapter on God, I guess. Truth be told, the whole book is. Not much in my life makes any sense outside of God. Certainly, a place like Homeboy Industries is all folly and bad business unless the core of the endeavor seeks to imitate the kind of God one ought to believe in. In the end, I am helpless to explain why anyone would accompany those on the margins were it not for some anchored belief that the Ground of all Being thought this was a good idea.
* * *
Rascal is not one to take advice. He can be recalcitrant, defensive, and primed for the fight. Well into his thirties, he’s a survivor. His truck gets filled with scrap metal and with this, somehow, he feeds his kids and manages to stay on this side of eviction. To his credit, he bid prison time and gang-banging good-bye a long time ago. Rascal sometimes hits me up for funds, and I oblige if I have it and if his attitude doesn’t foul my mood too much. But you can’t tell him anything—except this one day, he actually listens. I am going on about something—can’t remember what but I can see he’s listening. When I’m done, he says simply, “You know, I’m gonna take that advice, and I’m gonna let it marinate,” pointing at his heart, “right here.”
Perhaps we should all marinate in the intimacy of God. Genesis, I suppose, got it right—“In the beginning, God.” Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, also spoke about the task of marinating in the “God who is always greater.”
He writes, “Take care always to keep before your eyes, first, God.” The secret, of course, of the ministry of Jesus, was that God was at the center of it. Jesus chose to marinate in the God who is always greater than our tiny conception, the God who “loves without measure and without regret.” To anchor yourself in this, to keep always before your eyes this God is to choose to be intoxicated, marinated in the fullness of God. An Algerian Trappist, before his martyrdom, spoke to this fullness: “When you fill my heart, my eyes overflow.”
* * *
Willy crept up on me from the driver’s side. I had just locked the office and was ready to head home at 8:00 p.m.
“Shit, Willy,” I say, “Don’t be doin’ that.”
“?’Spensa, G,” he says, “My bad. It’s just . . . well, my stomach’s on échale. Kick me down with twenty bones, yeah?”
“Dog, my wallet’s on échale,” I tell him. A “dog” is the one upon whom you can rely—the role-dog, the person who has your back. “But get in. Let’s see if I can trick any funds outta the ATM.”
Willy hops on board. He is a life force of braggadocio and posturing—a thoroughly good soul—but his confidence is outsize, that of a lion wanting you to know he just swallowed a man whole. A gang member, but a peripheral one at best—he wants more to regale you with his exploits than to actually be in the midst of any. In his midtwenties, Willy is a charmer, a quintessential homie con man who’s apt to coax money out of your ATM if you let him. This night, I’m tired and I want to go home.
It’s easier not to resist. The Food 4 Less on Fourth and Soto has the closest ATM. I tell Willy to stay in the car, in case we run into one of Willy’s rivals inside.
“Stay here, dog,” I tell him, “I’ll be right back.”
I’m not ten feet away when I hear a muffled “Hey.”
It’s Willy, and he’s miming, “the keys,” from the passenger seat of my car. He’s making over-the-top, key-in-the-ignition señales.
“The radio,” he mouths, as he holds a hand, cupping his ear.
I wag a finger, “No, chale.” Then it’s my turn to mime. I hold both my hands together and enunciate exaggeratedly, “Pray.”
Willy sighs and levitates his eyeballs. But he’s putty. He assumes the praying hands pose and looks heavenward—cara santucha. I proceed on my quest to the ATM but feel the need to check in on Willy only ten yards later.
I turn and find him still in the prayer position, seeming to be only half-aware that I’m looking in on him.
I return to the car, twenty dollars in hand, and get in. Something has happened here. Willy is quiet, reflective, and there is a palpable sense of peace in the vehicle. I look at Willy and say, “You prayed, didn’t you?”
He doesn’t look at me. He’s still and quiet. “Yeah, I did.”
I start the car.
“Well, what did God say to you?” I ask him.
“Well, first He said, ‘Shut up and listen.’”
“So what d’ya do?”
“Come on, G,” he says, “What am I sposed ta do? I shut up and listened.”
I begin to drive him home to the barrio. I’ve never seen Willy like this. He’s quiet and humble—no need to convince me of anything or talk me out of something else.
“So, son, tell me something,” I ask. “How do you see God?”
“God?” he says, “That’s my dog right there.”
“And God?” I ask, “How does God see you?”
Willy doesn’t answer at first. So I turn and watch as he rests his head on the recliner, staring at the ceiling of my car. A tear falls down his cheek. Heart full, eyes overflowing. “God . . . thinks . . . I’m . . . firme.”
To the homies, firme means, “could not be one bit better.”
Not only does God think we’re firme, it is God’s joy to have us marinate in that.
* * *
The poet Kabir asks, “What is God?” Then he answers his own question: “God is the breath inside the breath.”
Willy found his way inside the breath and it was firme.
I came late to this understanding in my own life—helped along by the grace-filled pedagogy of the people of Dolores Mission. I was brought up and educated to give assent to certain propositions. God is love, for example. You concede “God loves us,” and yet there is this lurking sense that perhaps you aren’t fully part of the “us.” The arms of God reach to embrace, and somehow you feel yourself just outside God’s fingertips.
Then you have no choice but to consider that “God loves me,” yet you spend much of your life unable to shake off what feels like God only embracing you begrudgingly and reluctantly. I suppose, if you insist, God has to love me too. Then who can explain this next moment, when the utter fullness of God rushes in on you—when you completely know the One in whom “you move and live and have your being,” as St. Paul writes. You see, then, that it has been God’s joy to love you all along. And this is completely new.
Every time one of the Jesuits at Dolores Mission would celebrate a birthday, the same ritual would repeat itself. “You know,” one of the other Jesuits would say to me, for example, “Your birthday is Wednesday. The people are throwing a ‘surprise party’ for you on the Saturday before.” The protests are as predictable as the festivities.
“Oh come on,” I’d say, “Can’t we pass this year?”
“Look,” one of my brothers would say to me, “This party is not for you—it’s for the people.”
And so I am led into the parish hall for some bogus meeting, and I can hear the people “shushing” one another—El Padre ya viene. As I step in the door, lights go on, people shout, mariachis strike themselves up. I am called upon to muster up the same award-winning look of shock from last year. They know that you know. They don’t care. They don’t just love you—it’s their joy to love you.
The poet Rumi writes, “Find the real world, give it endlessly away, grow rich flinging gold to all who ask. Live at the empty heart of paradox. I’ll dance there with you—cheek to cheek.”
Dancing cumbias with the women of Dolores Mission rhymes with God’s own wild desire to dance with each one of us cheek to cheek.
Meister Eckhart says “God is greater than God.” The hope is that our sense of God will grow as expansive as our God is. Each tiny conception gets obliterated as we discover more and more the God who is always greater.
* * *
At Camp Paige, a county detention facility near Glendora, I was getting to know fifteen-year-old Rigo, who was about to make his first communion. The Catholic volunteers had found him a white shirt and black tie. We still had some fifteen minutes before the other incarcerated youth would join us for Mass in the gym, and I’m asking Rigo the basic stuff about his family and his life. I ask about his father.
“Oh,” he says, “he’s a heroin addict and never really been in my life. Used to always beat my ass. Fact, he’s in prison right now. Barely ever lived with us.”
Then something kind of snaps in him—an image brings him to attention.
“I think I was in the fourth grade,” he begins. “I came home. Sent home in the middle of the day. Got into some pedo at school. Can’t remember what. When I got home, my jefito was there. He was hardly ever there. My dad says, ‘Why they send you home?’ And cuz my dad always beat me, I said, ‘If I tell you, promise you won’t hit me?’ He just said, ‘I’m your father. ’Course I’m not gonna hit you.’ So I told him.”
Rigo is caught short in the telling. He begins to cry, and in moments he’s wailing and rocking back and forth. I put my arm around him. He is inconsolable. When he is able to speak and barely so, he says only, “He beat me with a pipe . . . with . . . a pipe.”
When Rigo composes himself, I ask, “And your mom?” He points some distance from where we are to a tiny woman standing by the gym’s entrance.
“That’s her over there.” He pauses for a beat, “There’s no one like her.” Again, some slide appears in his mind, and a thought occurs.
“I’ve been locked up for more than a year and a half. She comes to see me every Sunday. You know how many buses she takes every Sunday—to see my sorry ass?”
Then quite unexpectedly he sobs with the same ferocity as before. Again, it takes him some time to reclaim breath and an ability to speak. Then he does, gasping through his tears. “Seven buses. She takes . . . seven . . . buses. Imagine.”
How, then, to imagine, the expansive heart of this God—greater than God—who takes seven buses, just to arrive at us. We settle sometimes for less than intimacy with God when all God longs for is this solidarity with us. In Spanish, when you speak of your great friend, you describe the union and kinship as being de uña y mugre—our friendship is like the fingernail and the dirt under it. Our image of who God is and what’s on God’s mind is more tiny than it is troubled. It trips more on our puny sense of God than over conflicting creedal statements or theological considerations.
The desire of God’s heart is immeasurably larger than our imaginations can conjure. This longing of God’s to give us peace and assurance and a sense of well-being only awaits our willingness to cooperate with God’s limitless magnanimity.
* * *
“Behold the One beholding you and smiling.” It is precisely because we have such an overactive disapproval gland ourselves that we tend to create God in our own image. It is truly hard for us to see the truth that disapproval does not seem to be part of God’s DNA. God is just too busy loving us to have any time left for disappointment.
* * *
One day I receive a phone call in my office around three in the afternoon. It’s from a twenty-five-year-old homie named Cesar. I have known him for most of his life. I can remember first meeting him when he was a little kid in Pico Gardens during the earthquake of 1987 when the projects had become a tent city. People lived outside in carpas well past the time of any danger. Cesar was one of the many kids seeking reassurance from me.
“Are we gonna be okay? Is this the end of the world?”
I spent every evening of those two weeks walking the tents, and I always associate Cesar with that period.
He’s calling me today because he has just finished a four-year stint in prison. Turned out, earthquakes were the least of Cesar’s troubles. He had joined the local gang, since there wasn’t anyone around to “chase his ass” and rein him in. At this point in his life, Cesar had been locked up more often than not. Cesar and I chitchat on the phone, dispatching the niceties in short order—“It’s good to be out—I’d love to see ya”—then Cesar says, “Let me just cut to the cheese.”
This was not a spin I had heard on this expression before.
“You know, I ju...