“They are not just about 9 to 5 here,” our tour guide said, “They really want to be your friends.” He was a short ex-gang member with a tattoo of the Chinese word for “brave” on his shaved head right behind one of his ears. I had been reading Tattoos on the Heart by Fr. Gregory Boyle and decided to visit the Homeboy Industries headquarters in Los Angeles near Chinatown to see for myself the context of the amazing ministries founded on boundless compassion.
I tagged along with a tour in progress and listened to the story of our tour guide – he was in jail for most of his teen years, where he met Fr. Greg. After he got out of jail, he got into more trouble by joining a gang. He, somehow, stayed in touch with Fr. Greg who consistently offered to help him. Two years ago, he finally took up his offer and went to Homeboy Industries. He got counseling; he went to anger management class; he even went to Yoga meditation class; all of these classes were part of his job at Homeboy Industries. He had to show up at 9 and be there to work and go to classes until 5. During that time, he had his big tattoo on his neck removed with 17 painful treatments. He refused to tell me what the tattoo said – that was his past life he said. I am glad he kept his “brave” tattoo behind his ear. He now has a steady job, he is happy and he looks forward to going home to his daughter everyday.
Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, routinely visits 25 detention institutions in Los Angeles County – juvenile halls, probation camps, jails, and state youth authority facilities. He hands out his card after celebrating Mass and says, “Call me when you get out. I’ll hook you up with a job—take off your tattoos – line ya up with a counselor. I won’t know where you are, but with this card, you’ll know where I am. Don’t slow drag. Cuz if you do, you’ll get popped again and end up right back here. So call me.”
The currency of relationship that Fr. Greg has with these homeboys and girls pays off when they step foot into the place called Homeboy Industries which now includes Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise, Homeboy Diner, Homeboy Farmers Markets and Homegirl Café. Through these social businesses, these young men and women received not just jobs but friendships and leadership development, and they begin to put their lives back together moving toward social and economic wellness. But most important of all, they discovered the truth about themselves—that they are people who have gifts to offer, and that they are loved.
Challenging society’s perception of gang members, Fr. Greg said, “What if we were to invest in gang members, rather than just seek to incarcerate our way out of this problem?”
Fr. Greg is a sustainist leader who takes what society throws away and reinvests them back in as valuable resources. He talks about the concept of a community of kinship, where he invites us to imagine, with God, a circle of compassion. “Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”
If your community is near Los Angeles, I would recommend calling Homeboy Industries and arranging a group tour for your community. If your community is far away from Los Angeles, invite members of your community to read Tattoos on the Heart. Gather your community to reflect on what they have learned. Challenge them to look around their neighborhood and recognize those who are poor, powerless and voiceless. Invite them to explore how they can build compassionate relationships with these groups following Fr. Greg’s example.
Reflection Questions for Proper 11 (Year B)
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Eric H. F. Law
For competent leadership in a diverse changing world
Upcoming Opportunities to Study with The Sustainist:
Holy Currencies: Creating Sustainable Missional Ministries
Rainbow Lodge Retreat Center, North Bend (near Seattle), WA
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