Tattoos on the Heart: Review

(note: this was written for the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference’s young adult resource magazine Shift)

So there I was, hanging out at the gift shop of Homegirl Cafe, when a heavily inked man, twice my size comes up to me with the warmest smile, holding a copy of Tattoos on the Heart.

“Bro, you should buy this,” he says through an infectious smile.

“I already have a copy.” I replied, sheepishly.

“You read it, yet?”

“Not yet. But it’s sitting on my stack of books to read.”

“You gotta read this. Now.”

“No, yea. I’ll read it real soon.”

“You should. It’s real good. Promise.”

If it was not for his gentle nudging and the urging of my wife (who works with the California prisons through her non-profit organization, The Center for Restorative Justice Works), the book would probably still be somewhere in the tower of books to read.

Gregory Boyle, or “G” as the homies call him, shares stories of the people in his life about their struggles, failures, triumphs, and redemption. He tells his stories straight forward with language that may be NSFC-E (never safe for church–ever)

In one story, G shares about La Shady, a female gang member. Her man and baby’s father was killed in a fight with a rival gang. G was on his way to set up a peace treaty between female members of her gang and the gang that killed her man when she comes up to his car, holding her baby daughter in her arms and telling him about a dream she had. In her dream, she is in G’s church and sees him standing next to a tiny baby’s coffin. G is beckoning her to come closer so she wearily approaches the coffin. She finally reaches the casket and before she can get a full view of the casket, a dove flies out of the casket, circles the insides of the church and finally finds its resting spot on Shady’s shoulder. Then she wakes up.

“What’s it mean, G?” She asks.

“Well, everyone knows that the white dove stands for peace. And so God is asking you to move toward forgiveness and healing and peace. And everything’s going to be fine,” G explained, taking advantage of this moment. “But here’s the only thing that matters, kiddo. How did the dream make you feel?”

She began to cry and explained that at first, she was scared because she thought the casket might be her daughter’s. But once she saw the dove, “I only felt peace and love in my heart.”

“God only wants you to feel those things, mijita– love in your heart… peace. You’re okay.”

Perhaps this conversation would be a turning point for Shady where she realizes a real possibility of forgiveness within her, a possibility of peace and grace, and more importantly a possibility of a real future for her and her daughter. We never know because the midnight following that conversation:

Shady is crammed into the middle seat in the back of a car filled with gang members. They’ve driven well out of her barrio, and the guys in the car are from a neighborhood not her own. They drive, and hand signs get thrown out the window at rivals standing on some street corner. The corner guys yell and scream all manner of foulness at the car, and Shady and the gang squealrubber out of there, laughing. Not a block away, a corner vato finds his gun. Shady slumps in the backseat. Only one bullet entered the car that night, and it happened to find the back of Shady’shead.

This story stuck out for me. Perhaps because the reader will never know how Shady’s journey would have played out. Or perhaps because Jennifer, Shady’s daughter, is now without her mom and dad. The story is evidence of how dangerous and short the gangster life can be. It is possible Jennifer may end up being a gang member like her parents. No one may be around to show her a different way of living; no one may be around to invest in her, to show her the image of God that she was created in, because there are more people who are afraid and prefer to keep a good distance from everyone involved in this lifestyle than there are people like G, who lives in the very community he wants to transform with the message of the Gospel.

The book is filled with compelling stories that draw out various emotions. G’s experiences show that these people are just that, people; people who have emotions, hopes, and dreams. He illuminates the humanity of people many may have discarded as “animals.”

There is a story about Chico and how the emotions of burying Chico, G’s eighth person in three weeks, was finally getting to him. He is crying underneath a tree near the burial site when the mortician unknowingly intrudes on his sacred moment. To break the silence, G whispers to his intruder, “Now that was a terrific kid.”

And, “In a voice so loud and obnoxious that it turns the heads of all the gathered mourners, [the mortician] says, ‘HE WAS?’”

Many of us may find ourselves in the shoes of the mortician. How can someone “good” live a gang banging life? But Christ did. He sees the heart of the people. He did not see prostitutes, degenerates, tax collectors, sinners, lepers– no, he saw children of God and had compassion on the people he was walking with, even those who would later crucify him.

As Christ followers, we are called to show the kind of boundless compassion G describes as, “A compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

Discussion Questions:

How do you define/view “compassion?” How does your definition of “compassion” compare to the compassion that Jesus embodied?

The Dolores Mission Church, the parish that G serves, is a part of the community. The neighborhood knows that G is the priest. G, his parish and Homeboy Industries are working hard to transform their neighborhood and the lives that live within it. The people of that community know who G is and know where they can run to in time of need. What is the relationship between your neighborhood and your church? What are the ways that your church is engaged in transforming the community with the irresistible and powerful message of God’s love? If your church were to close its doors, what affect, if any, would it have in your community?