Tattoos on the Heart

the Power of Boundless Compassion, by Gregory Boyle (a summary by Pat Evert)


We are put on earth for a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love.  In Africa they say “a person becomes a person through other people.”  I hope, likewise, to tattoo those mentioned here on our collective heart.  Perhaps, together, we can teach each other how to bear the beams of love, persons becoming persons, right before our eyes.  A new sense of “church” had emerged, open and inclusive, replacing the hermetically sealed model that had kept the “good folks” in and the “bad folks” out.  It was one such march that gave birth to Homeboy Industries in 1988, the Homeboy Bakery and Homeboy plumbing.  We began tattoo removal.  This included a thousand folks a month, from forty-five different zip codes. Members from more than eight hundred gangs from all over the county now came seeking employment, tattoo removal, mental health counselling, case management, and legal services.  Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandising, Homeboy Maintenance, and Homegirl Cafe,  Los Angeles County claims 1,100 gangs with nearly 86,000 members. A great number of these youth know to come to Homeboy when they are ready to “hang up their gloves.” Homeboy Industries is not for those who need help, only for those who want it. In this sense, we are a gang-rehabilitation center.  After two decades, the city of Los Angeles has embraced Homeboy Industries as its own and has allowed it to shape how we see this “condition” and how we can, in part, respond to it.

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.  They don’t just love you—it’s their joy to love you.  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.  ‘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.  “Look, son,” I say to him, “Who’s got a better heart than you? And God is at the center of that great, big ol’ heart. Hang on to that, dog—cuz you have what the world wants. So, what can go wrong?”  In this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having.  There is a vastness in knowing you’re a son/daughter worth having. We see our plenitude in God’s own expansive view of us, and we marinate in this.  How much greater is the God we have than the one we think we have.

Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty and all embarrassment into laughter.  Guilt, of course, is feeling bad about one’s actions, but shame is feeling bad about oneself.  Mother Teresa told a roomful of lepers once how loved by God they were and a “gift to the rest of us.”  Franciscan Richard Rohr writes that “the Lord comes to us disguised as ourselves.”  The principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame—a global sense of failure of the whole self.  Homies seem to live in the zip code of the eternally disappointing, and need a change of address.  It’s more important that they know you than that they know what ya know.”  Out of the wreck of our disfigured, misshapen selves, so darkened by shame and disgrace, indeed the Lord comes to us disguised as ourselves. 

I will admit that the degree of difficulty here is exceedingly high. Kids I love killing kids I love. There is nothing neat in carving space for both in our compassion.  Sometimes it’s enough simply to acknowledge how wide the gulf is that we all hope to bridge. But isn’t the highest honing of compassion that which is hospitable to victim and victimizer both?  He knows it’s just the harder thing. But to love the enemy and to find some spaciousness for the victimizer, as well as the victim, resembles more the expansive compassion of God. That’s why you do it, to be in the world who God is. Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.  This was a social grouping of people who felt wholly unacceptable. The world had deemed them disgraceful and shameful, and this toxic shame, as I have mentioned before, was brought inside and given a home in the outcast.  Recognizing that we are wholly acceptable is God’s own truth for us—waiting to be discovered.  Jesus was not a man for others. He was one with others.  He didn’t champion the cause of the outcast. He was the outcast.  The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.  I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs.

It is an offering (better late than never) of that parent-child bond that tells the fatherless that they’re lovable.  There is a wound that needs excavating before that “first attachment” can attach itself elsewhere.  Gangs are bastions of conditional love—one false move, and you find yourself outside. Slights are remembered, errors in judgment held against you forever. If a homie doesn’t step up to the plate, perform the required duty, he can be relegated to “no good” status. This is a state from which it is hard to recover.  Everyone is just looking to be told that who he or she is, is right and true and wholly acceptable.  Nothing less than God’s own satisfaction at the sacredness, the loveliness that’s there in each one—despite what seems to be a shape that’s less than perfect.  Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” I like even more what Jesus doesn’t say. He does not say, “One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you’ll be light.” He doesn’t say “If you play by the rules, cross your T’s and dot your I’s, then maybe you’ll become light.” No. He says, straight out, “You are light.” It is the truth of who you are.

“Omar,” I tell him, “it has always been as simple as that.” “How many things have to happen to you,” Robert Frost writes, “before something occurs to you?” Change awaits us. What is decisive is our deciding.  Ours is a God who waits. Who are we not to? It takes what it takes for the great turnaround. Wait for it.  There is nothing “once and for all” in any decision to change. Each day brings a new embarking. It’s always a recalibration and a reassessing of attitude and the old, tired ways of proceeding, which are hard to shake for any of us.

“God created us—because He thought we’d enjoy it.”  I’m gonna sit down to eat with my lady and my two morritos. But, well … I don’t eat. I just watch them eat. My lady she gets crazy with me, but I don’t care. I just watch ’em eat. They eat and eat. And I just look at ’em and thank God they’re in my life. When they’re done eating and I know they’re full, THEN I eat.  We breathe in the spirit that delights in our being—the fragrance of it.  God is surely too busy delighting in us to want to ship us off in hand-baskets to Hades. Socorro knew this with unshakeable certainty (and with, I might add, a dash of unconquerable gladness).  Everything on this side of death, however, is “requesting the honor of our presence” so we can delight in life’s astonishing, joyful poetry.  His ways aren’t our ways, but they sure could be.  Isaiah has God say: “Be glad forever and rejoice in what I create … for I create my people to be a delight.”

God has greater comfort with inverting categories than I do. What is success and what is failure? What is good and what is bad? Setback or progress?  “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.”  If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success becomes God’s business.  Each one attentive, tender, and consumed by a self-forgetfulness that only saints, really, are able to pull off.  But Jesus just stood with the outcast. The Left screamed: “Don’t just stand there, do something.” And the Right maintained: “Don’t stand with those folks at all.” Both sides, seeing Jesus as the wrong size for this world, came to their own reasons for wanting Him dead.  You actually abolish slavery by accompanying the slave. We don’t strategize our way out of slavery, we solidarize, if you will, our way toward its demise. We stand in solidarity with the slave, and by so doing, we diminish slavery’s ability to stand. By casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing.  Thus we allow our hearts to “be broken by the very thing that breaks the heart of God.”  Our locating ourselves with those who have been endlessly excluded becomes an act of visible protest. For no amount of our screaming at the people in charge to change things can change them.  Jesus was always too busy being faithful to worry about success. I’m not opposed to success; I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.  “We see in the homies what they don’t see in themselves, until they do.”  You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear. Jesus jostled irreparably the purity code of the shot callers of His day. He recognized that it was precisely this code that kept folks from kinship. Maybe success has become the new purity code. And Jesus shows us that the desire for purity (nine times out of ten) is, in fact, the enemy of the gospel.  Without wanting to, we sometimes allow our preference for the poor to morph into a preference for the well-behaved and the most likely to succeed, even if you get better outcomes when you work with those folks. If success is our engine, we sidestep the difficult and belligerent and eventually abandon “the slow work of God.”  Obviously, after having buried 168 young human beings, all killed violently because of gangs, I have had to come to terms with the “failure” of death.  On most days, if I’m true to myself, I just want to share my life with the poor, regardless of result. I want to lean into the challenge of intractable problems with as tender a heart as I can locate, knowing that there is some divine ingenuity here, “the slow work of God,” that gets done if we’re faithful.

Mother Teresa diagnosed the world’s ills in this way: we’ve just “forgotten that we belong to each other.”  Without it there is no justice, no peace, Kinship—not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.  We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop.  We don’t hold the bar up and ask people to measure up to it. One simply shows up and commits to telling the truth. At Homeboy Industries, we seek to tell each person this truth: they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them—and then we watch, from this privileged place, as people inhabit this truth. Nothing is the same again.  And the soul felt its worth.