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Finding the “Tenderness of God” In Gang Intervention Work

Two literal books were the figurative bookends of my arriving to and exiting from Casa Juan Diego in the form of Father Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir. In the back of my copy of Tattoos on the Heart there are phone numbers of group leaders and outlines of a schedule. The blank pages served as scrap paper when I read it during college while on a mission trip to Honduras, which was ultimately the place where the annunciation of Casa Juan Diego into my life occurred on my last trip there during senior year. Reading Barking to the Choir was a gift which ushered my time and heart out of Casa Juan Diego. I know that God used Tattoos on the Heart to prepare my own heart for the work and love of Casa Juan Diego.

Tattoos on the Heart introduced the world to Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention program in the world. In the mid 1980s Father Greg Boyle was sent to Dolores Mission Church in a Los Angeles neighborhood with the highest concentration of gang activity in the city. The community, with Father Greg, started a program called Jobs for a Future, addressing the reality that having employment could be a dignified and practical approach to reducing gang violence. Jobs for a Future became Homeboy Industries when a program became a collection of social enterprises. Today the organization is a continuum of free services and programs and social enterprises serving as job-training sites. Most importantly it is a community of hope, restoration, and tenderness.

It is worth saying that Father Greg is a Jesuit priest, recipient of the California Peace Prize, Notre Dame Laetare Medal, and many other accolades; and that the organization he started is a model in many other cities for successful former gang member rehabilitation. But when I had the quiet opportunity to see Father Greg in person, he was simply a man who had recently lost his mom. On such a significant day in the Church as Palm Sunday, he preached all four services at the First Presbyterian Church shaping his message like his books- truths of God’s love communicated in story format. He stood with his hands in his pockets, softly touching the tears on his face, as he spoke about the last days of his mom’s life. He arrived to talk about kinship with those who are marginalized but first entered into kinship with every other son or daughter in the congregation who has lost a parent. It humbled me or as Father Greg would say “returned me to myself.”

Barking to the Choir is a second masterpiece recounting the heart of the genteand the heart of our God … that is one heartbeat. We are called to delight in one another modeling our God who delights in us.

And it is a delight indeed to read his books. If nothing else you will laugh. The funniest stories are those sprinkled with what he names in Tattoos on the Heartas “homiepropisms.” The delight comes from soaking in the mystery at the crossroads of two seemingly contrasting emotions. I describe it as face scrunching, when you squeeze laughter and release tears all in a moment. The horror of former gang members’ lived experience and suffering punches you in the gut; but without notice you shriek and chuckle out loud at the details of the circumstance of a story.

Since our mission statement at Casa Juan Diego is the scripture of Matthew 25, the following lines in the introduction of Barking to the Choir captured perfectly what a Worker can learn here, “In all my years of living, I have never been given greater access to the tenderness of God than through the channel of the thousands of homies I’ve been privileged to know. The day simply won’t ever come when I am nobler or more compassionate or asked to carry more than these men and women…For my part, to sit at their feet, has been nothing short of salvific” (4-5).

Father Greg has a realistic pulse of what the poor experience. He shares little details with the reader, “No bank account, no car, or one that can reliably get you where you’re going; no health insurance; several dollars short of a package of Pampers” (59).  Yet his emphasis is in the awe of the carrying of the cross. “We are reverent, then, for the weight carried by those on the margins and stand present before the wordless goodness of our God in them” (69). It is best to include a complete mini story because it is the most accurate window into the book.

“A homie named Cruz spent his last dollars taking a Metrolink train sixty miles to Los Angeles from San Bernardino, where he had relocated his lady and newborn to avoid the dangers and desperation of his previous gang life. He had a part-time job but could not get his boss to give him more hours. Now he sits in my office, rattling off a list of the pressures and needs of his family. With no safety net in sight but me, he speaks of no food in the fridge, no lights, landlord looming, no bus fare. When he finishes this breathless account, Cruz stops, shaken and exhausted. He grows teary-eyed and says quietly, “I just keep waiting.”

“For what, son?” I ask.

“For the last to be first.” (60)

Both in structure and takeaway, Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir are very similar. We hear different details of the same story. Sometimes even the same lines and poems are repeated. But it is the repetition we need because we still haven’t gotten it. His chapters touch each and all of the themes at the heart of the Gospel: mercy, love, compassion, loving–kindness, forgiveness, perseverance, humility, sacrifice, abundant life. Each page is a dance between a story from Father Greg’s work with the people and a spiritual truth.

Father Boyle helps to set the story straight on why people join gangs. Our own judgments on why people, who we don’t personally know, join gangs are probably based in assumptions to fulfill a stereotype we want to maintain out of fear. We are introduced to many of the people Father Boyle has gotten to work with and we can then trust his evaluation of the reason for gang involvement. In his chapter titled “Good Guy” in Barking to the Choir, Father Greg declares that, “Gang involvement is about a lethal absence of hope. No kid is seeking anything when he joins a gang, he’s always fleeing something” (131). Father Greg works with a population who is narrowly stereotyped as “bad,” even as animals. In that same chapter he goes on to say that in thirty years of walking with gang members he has never met a bad guy.

Right now undocumented immigrants are dehumanized in deed and in language. Our nation wants to ride on stereotypes to easily push the least of these out of our country. We work with this population of people who carry around the bad assumptions of others. After participating in the work of Casa Juan Diego (though not for thirty years) and walking with the undocumented folk, I agree with Father Boyle; I never met the “bad guy.”

As a Worker in the women’s house I didn’t get to know the stories of the men as often as the women. But I would gather parts of the detailed fabric of their lives as they arrived for the first time at our door or during a testimony to their journey at a Wednesday Mass.

One story particularly stands out. Julio from El Salvador preached from the depth of his heart that at several points in his camino when it appeared he was close to death, he begged the Lord to forgive him of his sins. Because of the stereotypes that infiltrate us we could assume the worst of what his sins could be. But what he said next convicted my own walk with the Lord and my own prejudices. He said, “We don’t have to murder someone to hurt the heart of our God. With a look can we offend Him.” Con una sola mirada.I beat my chest. Forgive us Father, we know not what we’ve done. We are crucifying our neighbor. Our Jésus on pilgrimage. Both Barking to the Choirand Tattoos on the Heartwill convict you on your pilgrimage with the Lord. They will call you to a deeper, wider love. Father Greg’s stories will show you the face of Christ in the imprisoned, the hungry and thirsty, the stranger.  A deeper love looks like heading to the margins. Radical kinship is dissolving the service provider/service-recipient exchange. Father Greg quotes Dorothy Day saying that the way to “live the Gospel” is to “stay close to the poor.” Stay long enough and through the “duty of delight” our Gospel living might “look more like what God had in mind,” kinship with one another. “What we discover when we embrace it is that true spirituality ought not to end in the privacy of our soul but in real kinship with the poor” (155).

My desire to ‘bark’ about loving the poor and not dehumanizing with our language might indeed be ‘preaching to the choir.’ This is a Catholic Worker publication after all. The value of this book is in the invitation and the sharing. It will move your heart, and you can invite your neighbors to join the choir.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, July – September 2018.