The Power of Boundless Compassion


Father Gregory Boyle since 1984 has ministered in a parish in East Los Angeles that has the highest concentration of gang activity in the city. In 1988 he started Homeboy Industries which has become the largest gang intervention, rehab, and reentry program on the planet. They provide jobs, tattoo removal, mental health counseling, case management, and legal services. I recently read Boyle’s new book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, and then re-read his previous book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. These books overflow with stories and insights gained from decades of, not just gang ministry, but a life intertwined with gang members. How do you imagine the first book might begin? The second? Not with autobiography, not with dramatic tales of gang violence, or sad stories of addiction and brokenness, nor exhortation about the necessity of providing jobs and counseling—all things found in the books. The first chapter in both books focuses on God. In the first paragraph of the first chapter of Barking to the Choir he writes, “It is indeed a challenge to abandon the long-held belief that God yearns to blame and punish us, ask us to measure up or express disappointment and disapproval at every turn” (13). In Tattoos, he writes, “It is precisely because we have such an overactive disapproval gland ourselves that we tend to create God in our image” (28). He proclaims the opposite and tells moving stories of homies experiencing that not only is God love, but that they are beloved by God. Why does he start this way? What can we learn from that?

Gang members’ relational lives are riddled with abandonment, alienation, and attachment issues. And for most, the God they live with is part of that negative stew of rejection and shame. Boyle’s starting his books with God displays that his experience leads him to passionately state the powerful role that God can play in recovery and transformation. Yet, it is also because he has seen the destructive power, and hindrance to healing, of a distorted concept of God. He begins with God because one’s concept of God matters. Living with a disapproving God of accusation is a core problem for homies (and not just homies), and experiencing the loving embrace of a God looking at us with eyes of compassion and delight is a powerful contribution to healing (and not just for homies). How might this reorient us? Is concept of God the first chapter, figuratively speaking,  in our programs, ministry, teaching, counseling, mentoring, parenting, etc.?

To be clear, it is not that Boyle just has an obligatory spiritual chapter and leaves God behind in the first chapter. Deep in the second book he writes, “’Working on yourself’ doesn’t move the dial on God’s love. After all, that is already fixed at its highest setting. But the work one does seeks to align our lives with God’s longing for us—that we be happy, joyful, and liberated from all that prevents us from seeing ourselves as God does” (111). Amen! I deeply affirm his passionate proclamation of God’s unconditional love. There was one line where he may have overstated it, “God is just too busy loving us to have any time left for disappointment” (Tattoos, 28). I wonder, because God loves us don’t our actions that hurt others and ourselves sadden God? Perhaps Boyle and I think of the word “disappointment” differently. Because, clearly Father Boyle recognizes that actions matter. His is not a fuzzy approach. Homeboy Industries has standards, they fire people. Boyle includes stories of loving confrontation of homies.

Yes, not fuzzy, but also so intentionally centered and not bounded. Boyle takes a centered approach not only as an alternative to bounded church, but, even more so, to the bounded character of gangs. He writes, “Gangs are bastions of conditional love—one false move, and you find yourself outside. Slights are remembered, errors in judgment held against you forever” (Tattoos, 94). Homeboy Industries seeks to offer the alternative, a community of unconditional love that avoids the boundedness of the gang and the judgementalism of society. I recommend reading the books and taking notes, as I did, on how to improve at practicing a centered approach. Here are just two items from my notes. 

Like many recovery programs, those who work at Homeboy must do drug testing. Yet, reflect on Boyle’s explanation for their strict approach: “Embarking on the ‘the good journey’ requires confronting the inevitable emotional obstacles in that path. It’s always a painful process, and we don’t want them to numb themselves by self-medication. Once they let go of the hatred for their gang rivals—every homie’s starting point—they are left to deal with their own pain” (Choir, 84).

When we step away from anxiety about the purity of the group and the imperative of drawing lines of exclusion, we can follow Father Boyle in turning from judgmentalism to compassionate accompaniment. He states, “the ultimate measure of health in any community might well reside in our ability to stand in awe at what folks have to carry rather than judgement at how they carry it” (Choir, 51).

I am getting increasingly uncomfortable with each additional paragraph I write in this blog. I have shared ideas, insights—and there are some great insights in the books—but first and foremost Boyle is a great story teller. His books, unlike my blog, are not essays. Immerse yourself in the stories, laugh with him, cry with him, learn with him. (To get a taste of the stories in the book listen to this Ted Talk.)

So, just one more insight to end with. Perhaps what most impresses me with the books is how much they affirm Bob Brenneman’s thesis in Homies and Hermanos, and James Gilligan’s thesis in Violence. At the root of addiction, violence, gang membership is shame. Boyle communicates this through stories and captures it in great lines like: “there is a palpable sense of disgrace strapped like an oxygen tank onto the back of every homie I know. . . they strut around in protective shells of posturing” (Tattoos, 52). Boyle seeks to counter “the wreck of a lifetime of internalized shame” by communicating the reality that “God finds them (us) wholly acceptable” (Tattoos, 44). “One of the signature marks of our God is the lifting of shame” (Choir, 135). Boyles calls us to follow Jesus in showering the shamed with love and dignity through radical inclusion and kinship. “Precisely to those paralyzed in this toxic shame, Jesus says, ‘I will eat with you.’ . . . He goes where love has not yet arrived. . . Eating with outcasts rendered them acceptable” (Tattoos, 70).

I end with Father Boyle’s words:

Soon we imagine, with God, this 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 the 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. The prophet Habakkuk writes, “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint. . . and if it delays, wait for it” (Tattoos, 190).

Posted on April 8, 2019 .