My favorite spiritual writers have two things. One is a sense of humor, and the ability to laugh at life. The second is humility in the face of other people’s experiences — the ability to admit that he/she doesn’t have all the answers, and that other people have something worthwhile to contribute.
Gregory Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, succeeds on both counts — and more.
Let me just come right out and say that this is the best spiritual book I’ve read in the past five years (at least). I first noticed it at the bookstore, where I was drawn to the picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the votive candles on the cover. I ended up getting it from the library, in the interest of saving a few shekels. I read it, loved it, and now I own a copy. (Yes, it’s that good.)
Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, an employment center in the gang capital of L.A. The center is primarily a place to train and employ former gang members, though it offers a variety of other services as well (including tattoo removal — one very visible way for gang members to get beyond their past). The book focuses on big spiritual topics — the power of compassion, what it means to be successful, who God is, and (perhaps more importantly) who God isn’t. I love Boyle’s image of a God who loves us so much that he can’t take his eyes off of us, a God who calls us by “the name your mom uses when she’s not pissed off.” I love what he writes about kinship, and about the difference between ministering to the poor versus being with the poor. “We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and 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.”
Boyle lives all that he preaches, which gives this book its emotional power. To be honest, at first I was slightly hesitant to read this book because I feared gang stories that would be relentlessly violent and horribly upsetting. And yes, there are stories in this book that made me cry. But the true gift of the book is that it is so honest, so engaging, so real. It’s like you are sitting and talking with a very wise older friend who is telling you all that life has taught him about God and faith. Better yet, he is telling you the stories of how he learned those things, stories that are poignant and involve memorable, beautiful people. And the book is seriously funny, too. (One of my favorite sections is when Boyle describes the time that he and three homies were invited to a reception at the White House.)
What this book really leaves me with is the reminder that God is in all of us, even the tattooed, scary-looking guy with the baggy pants who makes you quickly cross to the other side of the street. This hit home early in the book, when Boyle tells the story of looking at a body in the street following a gang shootout. A mother in the community comes over, crying, and says, “I don’t know who that kid is, but he was some mother’s son.” He was, and we are. And we’re God’s children, whom he loves fiercely, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. Boyle’s ministry has helped many young men and women find that love … and there’s no greater gift than that.