TATTOOS ON THE HEART

When I sent the manuscript for Resetting Respect out to a number of friends and former publishing colleagues for review, a good friend and very smart, compassionate woman responded with, “After reading your last comment about Christy Porter, I thought of Father Greg Boyle qua respectful person of the decade, and thought I’d mention him, if you don’t know who he is.  I do believe that it is perhaps most challenging of all to respect people who are very harshly judged by society, and a harder sell to others to support programs that accord such respect to them.  I think it’s easier to get behind food that’s being wasted and people who are hungry. Am wondering if the book could incorporate/address that point a bit more?”

Yes, I do know who Father Boyle is, and yes, I think this whole conversation about respect needs to address the really tough challenges to living respectfully. Greg Boyle is author of Tattoos on the Heart, Jesuit priest, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, and human being extraordinaire. I read Tattoos some years ago after hearing “G,” as the homies call him, interviewed on the radio. It’s difficult to come up with the right words to describe the experience of reading Tattoos. The book is poetry, comedy, tragedy, philosophy and scripture. It had me in tears, it had me in stitches, and it inspired me to believe we can all do better, we can all be better, we can all get to the place where we can do the hard work of, as my friend said, respecting people who are very harshly judged by society.

For over 20 years, Gregory Boyle has run Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, the poorest parish in LA and one dominated by gangs. The pages of his book are peopled with tattooed gang members who, casually encountered, would not likely inspire respect. They have attitude, they have anger, they have addictions, and they have weapons and the willingness to use them. They also have self-doubt, and pain, and problems beyond the comprehension of most of us. As Father Greg says, they “carry more burden than they can bear.”

Most of the characters in this book live with a bravado that, when it breaks down, turns into “I…am…a…disgrace,” or “people see me like less.” Matteo and Julian accompanied Father Greg on a speaking trip to Helena, MT, where they received a standing ovation, and then VIP treatment through the airport and onboard the plane back to Los Angeles. Father Greg noticed Matteo crying after reading through a newspaper article on their presentation and asked what was wrong. The tough-looking young man responded, “I don’t know…it really gets to me. Makes me feel like I am somebody.”

Homies Richie and Chepe went on another speaking trip with Father Greg. For the boys first time in a restaurant, they stopped at a Coco’s for dinner, where the glowering hostess led them among tables filled with astonished, silent, staring diners to the most out-of-sight table in the place. The young men were very aware of the “attention” they were receiving, until their waitress approached with warmth and welcome, “Honey”s and “Sweetie”s,  free soda refills and all the Tapatio they needed through the course of the meal. The boys commented as they left the restaurant about how great she had been and how “she treated us like we were somebody.”

Father Greg met Lula at an Easter egg hunt, the 10-year-old standing alone, skinny and filthy, loosing his eggs to poachers. “My name is Luis, but everybody calls me Lula,” he told “G.” A week later, when Father Greg pulled up to an intersection, there was Lula, just entering the crosswalk. Father Greg rolled down his window and shouted his name. You would have thought I had electrocuted him. His whole body spasms with delight to be known, to be called, to hear his name uttered out loud. For his entire trip through the crosswalk, Lula kept turning back and looking at me, smiling.”

All the stories in the book, like the ones about Matteo and Julian, Richie and Chepe, and Lula, are poignant and memorable. They are reminders of the value of each homie, of the humanity of each, of the burdens they carry, and the respect that we owe them. But the story that affected me the most was about Manny, who had survived a drug-addicted father and jail, whose pride and joy was the childcare center at Homeboy Industries he had helped build, who had recently moved away from the neighborhood with his lady who was pregnant with their second child, and who had confessed to Father Greg that he just wanted to be a good father.  As he drove out of the barrio and onto the ramp for the freeway home after having shared the exciting news with Father Greg that he was going to begin college the following Monday, an old rival saw him and opened fire. After several days the family agreed to donate his organs.

As the two nurses wheel Manny to surgery for the harvesting of his organs, one nurse turns to the other and shakes her head in disgust, no doubt eyeing Manny’s tattoos.

‘I mean,’ she says, rolling her eyes, ‘who would want this monster’s heart?’  The other nurse stops the gurney mid-hallway and turns on her coworker with a clarity that may well have surprised herself. ‘How dare you call this kid a monster? Didn’t you see his family, his friends, his son? He was nineteen years old, for God’s sakes. He belonged to somebody. Shame on you.’”

I’ve thought of that heart. What family wouldn’t want that heart that might well save the life of a loved one? And that’s what it comes down to. We all have a human heart that, under similar circumstances, might well save another life. How much more basic can it get? We all have value. We all deserve respect.

Thank you, Father Gregory Boyle, for the work that you do. Thank you for sharing your story, and the stories of so many homies, with us in Tattoos on the Heart. May the rest of us learn from your stories how to get to the place where we can experience empathy, show compassion, and accord respect to everyone and everything, and, maybe most especially, to those whose burdens are too great to bear.