Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

Gregory Boyle SJ
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: USA, Free Press, 2011
ISBN-10: 1439153159
ISBN-13: 978-1439153154
RRP £9.61

This is one of the most touching, most remarkable books I have ever read. If anybody wants to see what it means to experience God’s love, to be ‘surprised by God’ and to become ‘fully human, fully alive’, then this is the book to read. There is nothing pretentious about it, nothing preachy or looking for acclaim. Its very simplicity and reality make it unforgettable.

Fr Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest from Los Angeles, wanted to live and work amongst the poor and so, more than 20 years ago, he was sent to a parish where Latino gangs terrorised the neighbourhood. In fact, that is the understatement. The parish consisted of two large housing estates, “known for decades as the gang capital of the world. There are 1,100 gangs comprising 86,000 members in Los Angeles County” and his parish “had the highest concentration of gang activity in the city.”

It was a new experience. Boyle admits that, as he was growing up, he would not have known how to recognise or contact gang members. Suddenly he found himself surrounded by mainly young men and boys trapped in a cycle of poverty, poor education, unemployment, dysfunctional families, violence, crime and imprisonment, angry at the world and determined to make people pay for the hardship that each had known.

Somehow, Fr Greg and his parishioners found themselves able to open their hearts and homes in a way that can only be described as truly Christlike. Noticing that the youths spoke, time and again, about wanting a job, Fr Greg, known as ‘G’ by all who knew him, set up a bakery and began offering training and employment. Eventually the bakery became Homeboy Industries, developing fresh opportunities and skills as new needs appeared. So, for instance, when a new employee discovered that the tattoo across his forehead frightened children and their mothers away from the bakery, the tattoo removal service was born.

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion is a collection of stories and reflections, grouped according to theme, but telling the real stories of real people under false names to protect their identities. There is nothing in this book to glorify Fr Greg’s tremendous patience, insight and compassion: instead there are young people who have lost sight of what it means to love and be loved, who break down in tears when love pierces their hard protective shell and who turn around their lives for the better. We hear of concerned parents, generous parishioners and dedicated helpers who, in their ordinariness, become extraordinary in the way they help those in need.

We listen to the tale of the youth who had never known others to see goodness in him. When a parishioner, a complete stranger, saved him from rival gang members because she had noticed his kindness to his nephew, this was all the catalyst he needed. Thanks to that one woman, he found a job, married and is now the doting father of three boys, an exemplary husband and father and a completely different person.

We hear of the boy who had done something wrong at school, asked his father to listen and understand and, instead, was beaten with a pipe. Later, as an inmate of a Juvenile Detention Centre in California, he made his First Holy Communion. Chatting to Fr Greg before Mass started, he described his mother, his eyes filling with tears. “My Mom takes seven buses every Sunday when she comes to visit me. She does that for me!” For this youth, the image of God was not that of Father, but of Mother.

This book is also a story of a parish and its people, who did not mind too much to having two places to accommodate the homeless but who started to object when numbers increased and overflowed to the church, which soon began to smell. Instead of calling a halt to sheltering those in dire need, the parishioners saw that, in reality, they were protecting Jesus ‘who had nowhere to lay his head’. Suddenly they decided that the stale odour of sweaty feet had become the fresh fragrance of roses because Jesus was in their midst. They opened their hearts and homes even more lovingly. How many parishes could imitate their example? Fr Greg and his parishioners have become the good shepherds of whom Pope Francis speaks: they not only care for the sheep: they smell like them.

Tattoos on the Heart is the Gospel in action. Fr Greg, Pope Francis and Jesus have a great deal in common! Time and again, a few paragraphs describing a person or an incident put the Gospel into the here and now, asking questions which perhaps only God can answer. As one of ‘his’ boys is shot and killed, Fr Greg asks how he should respond when “a kid I love is killed by kids I love”. Such heartrending challenges mean that there is nothing soft and sentimental about this book: the questions are those which can only be posed by harsh reality. Answers appear only after deep and prayerful soul searching.

Fr Greg uses words in such a way that they, somehow, ‘hit the spot’. He describes becoming surrounded and immersed in God’s love as ‘marinating in God’. He speaks of Jesus as going where ‘love has not yet arrived’. It is this directness and simplicity which mean that although Tattoos on the Heart is very easy to read and flows beautifully from one section to another, at the same time, it is so thought-provoking that it is almost sacrilegious to go from cover to cover without frequent stops to think and pray.

Tattoos on the Heart was written for an American readership, preferably one with some contact with the Hispanic community. It is punctuated by Spanish and ‘tough guy’ expressions which could be a distraction in an English setting. I have had no difficulty whatsoever in suggesting to Latin American colleagues that they might find the book valuable – and they have bought their own copy as a result. At the same time, the sometimes rough language used in the quoted conversations would be recognised by those who are associated with gang culture in this country, where refinement and good manners are equally hard to find.

Compassion runs throughout the pages of Tattoos on the Heart. It is something which is difficult to define. A prison inmate with a life sentence of which he had served 25 years diffidently likened compassion to his understanding of Jesus. Time and again Fr Greg describes situations which are deeply touching and others which must have demanded every ounce of courage, faith and whatever compassion and understanding he could muster. Thus this book is a remarkable testimony of faith and trust. It is also gentle and full of wonder as Fr Greg and others find God working in and through them in the most unexpected situations. Not everybody’s life changes, but in the stories he tells, there are definitely moments when God’s love is wonderfully and brilliantly active – and considering Fr Greg has achieved some of his greatest successes whilst being treated for leukaemia is surely proof positive of God’s ongoing support.

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion is an amazing book. I am all the richer for having read it.