Tattoos On the Heart: Being Jesus Among the Gangs in LA

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I’m on a reading binge. My nest is empty and the hub flies the friendly skies. Believe me, I’ve got the time. But reading is time well-spent, so I make no apologies.

On the docket today is Father Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos On the Heart. Father Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, an organization that provides training, support, and hope to “formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women“.

I honestly couldn’t tell you how this book came up on my radar. I’m a bunny trail researcher, so I was probably looking something up and it led me to something else which, in turn, led me to another thing that was remotely connected to the original thing (but not really), and then, by this time, completely forgetting the original thing I was researching, I downloaded Fr. Greg’s book. Yes, my mind is a wonderland.

In 1986 Father Greg started out as the pastor of Delores Mission in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. His book isn’t really a chronicling of how Homeboy Industries came to be, but rather, short stories about the homies and, in Fr. Greg’s words,  “God, Jesus, compassion, kinship, redemption, mercy, and our common call to delight in one another.

I won’t say a lot about the book except that, once again, God, through the work of His faithful servants, is showing me how to see people through His eyes of compassion rather than my eyes of fear and assumption. Fr. Greg, a Jesuit, writes in a faintly liturgical style mixed with a frankness that authenticates his subjects and a dry wit that is, no doubt, a necessity.

From the book:

Fr. Gregory Boyl with his homies.

Fr. Greg with his homies.

The next kid approaching, I can tell, is all swagger and pose. His walk is chignon in its highest gear. His head bobs, side-to-side, to make sure all eyes are riveted. He sits down, we shake hands, but he seems unable to shake the scowl etched across his face.

“What’s your name?” I ask him.

“Sniper,” he sneers.

“Okay, look (I had been down this block before), I have a feeling you didn’t pop outta your mom and she took one look at your ass and said, ‘Sniper.’ So, come on, dog, what’s your name?”

“Gonzalez,” he relents a little.

“Okay now, son, I know the staff here will call you by your last name. I’m not down with that. Tell me, mijo, what’s your mom call you?”

“Cabron.”

There is even the slightest flicker of innocence in his answer.

Oye, no cabe duda. But, son, I’m looking for birth certificate here.”

The kid softens. I can tell it’s happening. But there is embarrassment and a newfound vulnerability.

“Napoleon,” he manages to squeak out, pronouncing it in Spanish.

“Wow,” I say, “That’s a fine, noble, historic name. But I’m almost positive that when your jefita calls you, she doesn’t use the whole nine yardas. Come on, mijito, do you have an apodo? What’s your mom call you?”

Then I watched him go to some far, distant place–a location he has not visited in some time. His voice, body language, and whole being are taking on a new shape–right before my eyes.

“Sometimes,” –his voice so quiet, I lean in–“sometimes…when my mom’s not mad at me…she calls me…Napito.”

I watched this kid move, transformed from Sniper to Gonzalez to Cabron to Napoleon to Napito. We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she’s not pissed off at us.

Names are important.

Father Gregory with his homies.

Fr. Greg with his homies.

Homies seem to live in the zip code of the eternally disappointing, and need a change of address. To this end, one hopes (against all human inclination) to model not the “one false move” God but the “no matter whatness” of God.

A Homeboy client.

A Homeboy client.

Jesus says if you love those who love you, big wow (which I believe is the original Greek). He doesn’t suggest that we cease to love those who love us when He nudges us to love our enemies. Nor does Jesus think the harder thing is the better thing. 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.

Noe Cruze.

Noe Cruze.

…there is a lethal absence of hope in the gang member. There is a failure to conjure up the necessary image that can catapult you into your future. In fact, gang members form an exclusive club of young people who plan their funerals and not their futures.

Homies at work at the Home Girl Cafe

Homies at work at the Home Girl Cafe

An equally young homegirl bounds into my office one day to tell me she’s pregnant. I suppose my face telegraphed, a little too clearly, a decided downsizing of my heart. Before I can say whatever I was going to say, she holds out her hand, as if to impede the words.

“I just want to have a kid before I die.”

I’m thinking, How does a sixteen-year-old get off thinking that she won’t see eighteen? It is one of the explanations for teen pregnancies in the barrio. If you don’t believe you will reach eighteen, then you accelerate the whole process, and you become a mother well before you’re ready.

 

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I remain always curious about the presence (or lack thereof) of the fathers in the lives of the homies. In the soul of nearly every homie I know there is a hole that’s in the shape of his dad. Homeboy Industries is always trying to create the moment of what psychologists call the “sustenance of that first attachment.” It is an offering (better late than never) of that parent-child bond that tells the fatherless that they’re lovable.

The great encounter with the “father wound” is every homeboy’s homework.

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At three o’clock in the morning, the phone rings. It’s Cesar [just released from prison]. He says what every homie says when they call in the middle of the night, “Did I wake you?”

I always think Why no, I was just waiting and hoping you’d call.

Cesar is sober, and it’s urgent that he talk to me.

“I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father–ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question.”

Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I…been…your son?”

“Oh, hell, yeah,” I say.

“Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.”

Now his voice becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbing. “Then…I will be…your son. And you…will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?”

“That’s right.”

In this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he had a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having. The voice broke through the terror and the crippling mess of his own history, and he felt himself beloved.

Father Gregory prays with a client.

Fr. Greg prays with a client.

“In the monastic tradition, the highest form of sanctity is to live in hell and not lose hope.”

Amen.

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