Tattoos on the Heart

Gregory Boyle
Free Press, 2010

BoyleThere is humor in Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle’s story when he gives details of the gang members he served in Los Angeles beginning in 1984. He introduces the young tattooed teenagers with descriptive vignettes like one boy who says he is referred to in his family as “the black sheet.” While that may be cute in a five-year-old, Boyle relates it to more evidence of the boy’s deprived background, his sweetness being eaten by gang life, and then always uses the story to illustrate his message. “People call you ‘the black sheet’ long enough, you tend to believe them. So, we reach in, dismantle the message, and rearrange the language so you can imagine yourself as somebody.”

As pastor of the Dolores Mission Church located in the poorest section of Los Angeles, “G,” as Boyle is called, founded the successful Homeboy Industries ( as a means of providing jobs to the young men and women seeking to find a way out of gang life. My son introduced me to Homeboy Industries through his interest in its mission. During a visit he took Sam and me to the cafe Homeboy was operating. I remember the service as polite and swift, the food good, and the neighborhood intimidating.

There are four things I took from reading this book. #1 Father Boyle epitomizes the best in the Catholic religion. #2 This book reinforces a belief in the enduring but obscured goodness of humanity. #3 This is a primer lesson in our society’s need to get beyond stereotypes and fear in the short run, and get on with better education and family support for success in the long run. #4 Writing a book of this nature is a powerful way to get a message out and support a mission in life.

There are passages that after the first half felt a twinge sappy for this non-church oriented person, and he has tactfully avoided the stories without happy endings, but the message flies with story after story that expresses Boyle’s compassion and the receptivity of the community.

Through a series of unadorned examples we see Boyle’s expectations of standards held, peace in the workplace where gang members worked with enemies, and his ability to talk to and get through to people about to drop through society’s cracks. It is interspersed with enough funerals because of gang killings, that I also felt weary at one point when he presided at yet another funeral.

Boyle quotes poets, the Bible, and thinkers of every historical time to use as mantras for his work, but it is the portrayal of the lost child without good guidance who struggles to become man or woman that most poignantly took me back to my own youth. In retrospect of that, I realize the compassion and truth of Boyle’s belief that regaining each young person into a productive and good life is slow work of genuine care that waits for “the big turn-around” for a person to see his or her own true, God-given worth.

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5 Responses to Tattoos on the Heart

  1. Thanks for the review, Rebecca. You don’t mess around but get right to the point. Much appreciated. Sounds heartbreaking and poignant. I’ve added this to my never-ending list of must reads. I wish I could read them like ET, with my index finger, and go to the next and the next…

  2. Sounds like an amazing story. it’s sad that it’s true.

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