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Tattoos on the Heart

The Power of Boundless Compassion
By Gregory Boyle

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Tattoos on the Heart includes discussion questions, and a Q&A with author Greg Boyle. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    • Rival gang members worked side by side in Greg’s firsthumanitarian business venture, Homeboy Bakery. How didthis unusual arrangement—enemies working together—play out? Can you think of ways this approach might workin a different context of conflict?

    • Greg talks about offering opportunities, not to people whoneed help but to those who want it. What difference do youthink this makes?

    • Elias Montes accepts an award on Greg’s behalf and saysto the audience, “Because Father Greg and HomeboyIndustries believed in me, I decided to believe in myself.“Greg himself writes, “Sometimes resilience arrives in themoment you discover your own unshakeable goodness.”For all their bravado, a lot of the gang members are deeplyvulnerable and insecure—how does Greg approach thiscontradiction?

    • Greg writes, “Kinship [is] not serving the other, but beingone with the other. Jesus was not ‘a man for others’; he wasone with them.” How are the two different, and how doesGreg integrate this distinction into his work?

    • How does life in a gang—which promises a sense of safety,belonging, and an income—compare to life at HomeboyIndustries (HBI)?

    • Greg describes how reporters and other guests are oftenscared and wary when visiting his community. Now thatyou know the homies’ stories, would you feel comfortableworking alongside them at Homeboy Bakery or ordering acup of coffee at the Homegirl Cafe?

    • The book is organized around stories that read like parablesof faith. What did these stories teach you about kinship,compassion, redemption, and mercy? How are someof these key lessons applicable to your own daily life?

    • How does Greg interpret the biblical parable about theparalyzed man being lowered through the roof of thepacked house so that he can access Jesus (p. 75)? He agreesthat the story is about the curative power of Jesus, but healso sees “something more significant happening. They’reripping the roof off the place, and those outside are beinglet in.” What does Greg mean by that? How has readingthis book informed your understanding of this parable?

    • Greg spends a lot of time talking to the homies about theirdifferent conceptions of God. Do you believe in God, andif so, how does your belief color the way that you view disparitiesin privilege and opportunity?

    • Greg often integrates poetry into his teachings. He quotesRumi (p. 26): “Find the real world, give it endlessly away,grow rich flinging gold to all who ask. Live at the emptyheart of paradox. I’ll dance there with you—cheek to cheek.” How do you think Greg interprets these lines? Howdo you think that interpretation informs his approach to hiswork? How do you interpret these lines?

    • In the preface, Greg explains the title and his hope thatreaders will tattoo these stories onto their hearts. Whichof these stories about Greg’s work stuck with you most?

    A Conversation with Greg Boyle

    What made you decide to write this book? Why was it importantfor you to share these experiences and stories with theworld?

    For well over two decades, I had been telling these stories in thousandsof Catholic Masses in detention facilities and in talks allover the country. People encouraged me, all the time, to put thestories down on paper. But in the end, I wrote the stories for thesame reason I tell them, so that people will see what I have beenprivileged to see in lives and experiences of gang members: courage,nobility, decency, holiness, and the face of God. I’ve come tostand in awe at who they are and what they’ve had to carry, and Iwanted readers to see this as well.

    What you are doing at HBI is very unconventional and brave.How do your superiors in the Church feel about your work?

    First of all, this work has never really felt brave nor unconventionalto me. If you listen to the poor and those on the margins,they will tell you what needs to be done and what will concretelybe helpful to them. There was never a grand scheme orclear blueprint or a whole-cloth business plan—just incrementalresponses to the needs of the most disparaged among the poor.So it’s always felt less “brave,” no more than a simple “rollingup of the sleeves” and getting busy-attentive to the “cry of the poor.” I suppose it is something of a cliché that “Superiors,” initially,didn’t know what to make of such a venture as HomeboyIndustries. I’m happy to say that, currently, it is a ministry hugelywelcomed and valued.

    You’ve worked with gang members for over twenty-five yearsnow—have you noticed any changes in the community? Havethe dynamics changed over time in terms of why kids joingangs and why they decide to leave them?

    Needless to say, much has changed in the gang landscape of thepast quarter of a century. In Los Angeles County alone, we havemoved from an all-time high in gang-related homicides in 1992(1,000) and have since seen that number cut in half, then cut inhalf again. The wholesale and widespread demonizing of thispopulation, so pervasive when I began, has now been replacedwith a more spacious, and “smarter,” take on crime. This is progress.Homeboy Industries got hate mail in the early years and nowgets love letters. Also progress. But kids still join gangs because ofa lethal absence of hope. We all need to continue to infuse suchkids with hope, because hope is so foreign to them. In all recovery,they say, “It takes what it takes.” The birth of a son, the deathof a friend, a long stretch in prison—it takes what it takes for agang member to say, “I’ve had enough.” Then, if society has anexit ramp off this crazy freeway, a homie will take it.

    What is the most effective way to empower the homeboys/girls? How do you get them to trust you?

    Empowerment rests in returning folks to themselves, to the verytruth of who they are. Gang members (and everyone, for thatmatter) are surprised to discover that they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them. To discover that God is toobusy loving them to be disappointed is life changing. But there iswork to be done besides—to engage in attachment repair, healing,collating of resilience, and the largest task of all: to redefinewho you are now in the world. All these constitute the empoweringwork a homie must undertake to be free and clear. This is nosmall endeavor.And they trust you if you love them. The task is not to bringthem to hope, but to allow them to bring you to hope. Youvalue them, they feel valuable. With loving-kindness and attention,they find themselves returned to delight and their originalbeauty, and you are returned to the very same thing in the process.What’s not to trust in that?

    Over the years, what continues to surprise you the most aboutgang culture? And what surprises you the most about how thecommunity reacts to your efforts at HBI?

    I suppose that historically, we have seen three distinct models atplay in how society has confronted the gang issue. There was theDemonizing Model, which had an abundance of confidence inour ability to suppress gang violence. This could be seen in lawenforcement programs like Operation Hammer in Los Angelesand Git ’Em in Arizona. There followed the RomanticizingModel: it chose to work with gangs as groups rather than withgang members—to approach gang violence like in the MiddleEast or Northern Ireland, trying to reach an accord and peacebetween the factions. Yet, as I see it, there is violence in gangviolence, but no conflict. It’s not a behavior; it’s a language, andit’s about despair—that’s what needs to be addressed. The thirdmodel is the Recovery Model. This is what Homeboy Industries does. It works with gang members and helps them transformtheir lives in the context of a welcoming, unconditionally lovingcommunity.Community, ultimately, trumps gang. The community atlarge sees this and it makes sense to them. Beyond the demonizing,which is always untruth, and the romanticizing, which isalways wrong-headed, recovery is a model more full and respectfulof what this enormously complex social dilemma is reallyabout. The best diagnosis will lead us to the most sensible andappropriate treatment plan.

    Your battle with leukemia marked a turning point for you. Inwhat way did this experience influence your attitude towardyour work at HBI and toward the gang members you workwith?

    For all the discomfort and upheaval that cancer and chemotherapymeant in my life, I would not trade that time for anything. Itushered in a clarity for me, of the exquisite mutuality of the kinshipof God. In a sense, my next book, Barking to the Choir: NowEntering the Kinship of God, will seek to explore the contours ofthis mutuality. Few experiences have helped shape this view forme more than my own illness.

    Another pivotal moment for you was your trip to Bolivia.Have you been back since you started HBI? Would you like togo back?

    I haven’t been back to Bolivia, and I suppose my own healthissues have kept me from returning to the “Third World,” if youwill. I fell in love with the poor in Bolivia and it set my heart in acertain direction, for sure. Dolores Mission and HBI would not have happened in my life had not my “compass” been reconfiguredby the graciousness of the Bolivians. The poor give you aprivileged access to the God who stands there with them. Onceyou experience this, it is where you want to reside—in the companyof the “least.”

    You speak Spanish and are clearly comfortable with homeboycolloquialisms. How much does your embracing of the languagefactor into your relationships with gang members andthe results you have achieved in your community?

    Communication is surely a desired goal for me. Beginning withhomilies in jails, I wanted to connect. Telling stories keeps peopleattentive, but you can rivet them if you are telling them THEIRstories. It’s heartening still to have a gang member show up inmy office, many years later, seeking help at HBI, and referencinga story he remembers I told when he was sixteen in a JuvenileHall. People just want to be heard and valued. Along with returningthem to themselves, you remind them that they have stories.This helps them come to their truth. But I also think homies areeternally interesting and as a lover of language, homie-speak isfull of life, goodness, and high hilarity.At first you tried to mediate truces between gangs, but soondecided to stop. Why is that?Truces, peace treaties, and cease-fires made more sense whengangs were indigenous. They are more of a commuter realitycurrently in Los Angeles. But beyond that, I can see that suchwork served the cohesion of gangs—it was an oxygen supply,keeping gangs alive. This is decidedly a bad thing. If I thoughtthat working with gangs was helpful, I’d be doing it.

    Have you worked with gang members who were not religiousor not Catholic? Do you think your message is applicable topeople of other faiths?

    Clearly, of the thousands of gang members who have receivedhelp at HBI, they have represented every creedal perspectiveimaginable. Certainly, my own Christian faith undergirds whatI do, but what we do at HBI is try to imitate the kind of Godwe believe in: the God of second chances; the God of the spaciousand expansive heart; the God who loves us without measureand without regret; the God who casts His lot with thoseexcluded, hoping for greater inclusion for them. HBI isn’t aboutany religion; it’s about God’s own dream come true: that therebe kinship.

    It’s always hard to get enough funding to meet payroll at HBI.How much of this, do you think, is due to the recession andhow much is it due to people’s misunderstanding of or prejudiceagainst members?

    Meeting payroll still keeps me up at night. Everyone can agreethat this current economic crisis has only heightened the degreeof difficulty there is in raising money. It also goes without saying,if I ran a nonprofit that helped children or puppies or foughta disease, I’d be sleeping better at night. Helping gang membersredirect their lives is a tough sell. But HBI doesn’t just help gangmembers, it saves the County and State well over $100 milliondollars a year (otherwise, the State and the County would haveto incarcerate the folks we help). As well, HBI has a singularimpact on public safety in Los Angeles County. Safety is in everybody’sinterest. HBI is a bargain and worthy of support. And Ineed my sleep!

    What was your goal when you first started HBI? Have yourambitions for this initiative evolved since then?

    HBI was a response in a particular historical moment in a specificcommunity, in a place of the highest concentration of gang activityin the known world. HBI was also just one step, one responseat a time, and eternally evolving. A homie shows up with analarming facial tattoo and tattoo removal was born. Not becauseI thought it was a good idea, but because the tattooed guy did.And so it evolved. We decided, maybe five years ago, after fieldingso many requests, that HBI would not franchise and becomethe “McDonald’s” of gang intervention programs (Over 5 billiongang members served!!). But we now have a Homeboy Networkof twenty-eight programs in the United States, born and modeledafter HBI. From Spokane to Miami, we have offered technicalassistance—we have gone there and they have come to us.Rather than airlift HBI into St. Paul or Wichita, programs havebeen “born from below” and modeled on our approach. Thisallows more ownership on the part of each city and is moreorganic, sensible, and sustainable because of it.

    What’s the most important piece of advice that you wouldlike to give people who are eager to help bring peace andunderstanding to their troubled communities?

    It’s about about gang members, not gangs. It’s about infusinghope to kids who are stuck in despair. It’s about healing the traumatizedand damaged so that kids can transform their pain andcease to transmit it. It’s about delivering mental health services ina timely and appropriate manner to the troubled young amongus. Above all, it’s about reverence for the complexity of this issueand a singular insistence that human beings are involved. There are no demons here. Just young people, whose burdens are morethan they can bear and who are having difficulty imaging a futurefor themselves. All hands on deck—if you are the proud ownerof a pulse—you can be beneficial here.

    What’s next for HBI? And for you?

    In 2013, HBI will celebrate twenty-five years. I suppose all ofus at HBI want to prepare and insure sustainability for thenext twenty-five years. Our hope is to help folks, but to alwaysannounce a message of kinship, mutuality, and concrete investmentin those who have been discarded.

About the Author

Gregory Boyle
Photograph © Maury Phillios

Gregory Boyle

Father Gregory Boyle was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1982. He received his Master of Divinity from the Weston School of Theology and a Sacred Theology Masters degree from the Jesuit School of Theology. In 1988, Father Boyle began what would become Homeboy Industries, now located in downtown Los Angeles. Fr. Greg received the California Peace Prize, the “Humanitarian of the Year” Award from Bon Appétit; the Caring Institute’s 2007 Most Caring People Award; and received the 2008 Civic Medal of Honor from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.