AJB Recommends: Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir by Father Greg Boyle

I’ve listened to Father Greg Boyle speak a few different times, but I only recently read his books, Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries. He lives in Los Angeles in a neighborhood with lots of gang activity. Boyle himself is an older white man. He compares himself to Santa Claus in appearance. Most of the “homies” (their term) he works with are Latino or African American men and women with multiple tattoos designating their gang affiliation. In other words, at least as far as appearance goes, “G” (as he is affectionately known) looks very different from the homies.

But story after story after story demonstrates not only the love that G has for the homies, and they for him, but story after story after story also demonstrates the connection that these men have with one another.

Still, I was surprised as I was reading at how much these books resonated with me. My life could not be farther from this neighborhood in Los Angeles as far as education, socio-economic status, or race and ethnicity. But I found myself nodding my head again and again. On the one hand, Boyle is a great storyteller, and he deserves some credit for drawing me in. But I was also drawn to these stories because of the truth they contain, the truth not just about former gang members on the streets of LA, but the truth they contain about me and about every other human being, the truth that we are all longing to be accepted, to have purpose and friendship, to be known and received and loved.

In Barking to the Choir, Boyle tells the story of Andres, a boy “abandoned by his mother when he was nine years old…” Andres tells G a story: “I see an old man lying on a bench. There’s a half-full forty on the ground in front of him and the old guy, well, he’s shiverin’ cuz it’s cold. So you know my favorite sweater? Well I was wearin’ it and I took it off and I laid it over this guy. He didn’t wake or notice.” Boyle writes, “For a moment, Andres enters a sort of trance. And then suddenly he’s shaken from it. “Hey. I’m not tellin’ ya all this so you think I’m AAALLL that. Nah, I’m telling ya all this cuz I know that bench. I been on that bench.”

When we start to see ourselves not only as the people who are willing to give our favorite sweater to the guy on the bench, but as the people who have been on the bench and give the sweater not out of pride but out of humility, not out of superiority but out of solidarity, then we start to tap into the love that fuels the universe, the love that created us all.

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