A spiritual journey into L.A.'s gang culture

In my business, there are few sounds more ominous than that of a good friend’s book landing on your desk. When that friend isn’t a professional writer, the desire to run can be almost irresistible: “Your book? No, I never saw it. You know I’ve been in Costa Rica. Beautiful place, but I lost my sight to a rare tropical parasite.”

Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries -- Los Angeles’ most successful effort to fruitfully engage young men and women caught up in the gang life -- has been my friend for more than two decades. We go back to the days when he was the freshly minted young pastor at Dolores Mission, the poor East L.A. parish that the Jesuits have helped residents of the adjacent housing projects turn into a vibrant center of community organizing built on the principles of liberation theology. Greg found his particular calling working with the area’s many gang members. Homeboy Industries, which he now directs, is the miraculous result.

Even so, I sat down with his first book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” with a friend’s trepidation. I got up glowing with the exhilaration that contact with first-rate literature confers. “Tattoos on the Heart” is destined to become a classic of both urban reportage and contemporary spirituality.


Its structure is simple: a series of dialogue-rich stories of the “homies” with whom Boyle has worked over the years, each leading to an unpretentious spiritual reflection rich in literary and scriptural allusion.

No other contemporary Los Angeles writer has so deftly captured the expressive flavor of the distinctive Spanglish patois spoken by the young people of East L.A. That alone makes “Tattoos on the Heart” remarkable literature. But something more is accomplished: An entire community made invisible by the wider city’s indifference and distaste comes urgently to life on these pages. In the process, we obtain as well a kind of autobiography of Boyle.

“What the American poet William Carlos Williams said of poetry could well be applied to the living of our lives: ‘If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem,’ ” he writes. “My director of novices, Leo Rock, used to say, ‘God created us -- because He thought we’d enjoy it.’

“We try to find a way, then, to hold our fingertips gently to the pulse of God. We watch as our hearts begin to beat as one with the One who delights in our being. Then what do we do? We exhale that same spirit of delight into the world and hope for poetry.”

There is poetry aplenty in this book, some of it quoted by an erudite author, most of it spilling from the lives and mouths of the young people whose stories and conversations he recounts. It all is singularly free of sentimentality and the treacle of conventional piety.

At one point, Boyle quips that “some on my senior staff wanted to change our motto, printed on our T-shirts, from ‘Nothing stops a bullet like a job’ to ‘You just can’t disappoint us enough.’ . . . You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.”

The late Henri Nouwen, one of the 20th century’s great masters of practical spirituality, once said: “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing . . . not healing, not curing . . . that is a friend who cares.”

By that wise and humane standard, the real city that is Los Angeles has no better or more caring friends than Greg Boyle and his selfless associates at Homeboy Industries. Their decision to stand immovably beside those deeply wounded and impossibly burdened young men and women -- to know them by the names their mothers used -- is a daily renewal of the hope that this place may one day be the city it ought to be.

All the proceeds from “Tattoos on the Heart” will go to support Homeboy’s work. Buy it for that reason alone, because Homeboy richly deserves every cent you send its way. Buy it to savor fine prose and the archaic power of the engaging story artfully and purposefully told. In either case, be prepared to see your city as you have not seen it before, and to be changed by the experience.