In 1988, during the peak of L.A. gang violence, Jesuit priest Father Gregory Boyle responded to the epidemic with a revolutionary act of love. He chose to see the gang members as children of God.
Boyle served the small congregation of Delores Mission in Los Angeles county. Circled by rival gangs, Delores Mission began with the desire to protect their small children who were coming to the church for classes and education. Boyle hit the streets in an effort to seek out and encounter the brokenness in his community. In doing so, he would find an endless supply of humanity reacting to traumatic childhood experiences through violence and addiction.
In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, Boyle tells his story and shares the encounters he has with violent gang members, prison inmates, and grieving mothers. He retells the horror of building relationships with young men and women who he would soon bury as they became victims of the very streets that raised them. He shares about the painful heart-work of loving someone, introducing them to what a transformed life could be like, grieving their relapses and celebrating their recovery, and watching hope fade with the twitch of a trigger.
One of the hardest prayers a person can pray is to ask God to break your heart for what breaks God’s. In the fear and heroine riddled streets of gang territory, where wars broke out and families were destroyed, Boyle didn’t have to ask. It was right in front of his face.
When he could have given up because L.A. county seemed hopeless, he stayed. When he could have given up on the gang members who continued to choose their old ways over transformed ways, he stayed committed. When he could have left them because the pain and exhaustion of the work was overwhelming, he stayed resilient. When he could have walked away and given up, he stayed with a consistent and unyielding love.
What began over 30 years ago, not as a reaction but a contemplative response, the work to bring mercy and peace to gang members in Los Angeles is now changing over 10,000 lives every year. What began as an act of love has become a community-based organization dedicated to transforming, equipping, empowering, and employing former gang members. And still, love is the most important thing.
Last week, I stepped out of the car and into the gang capital of the world, Los Angeles, to see for myself what I had read about in Tattoos on the Heart. I wanted to see what thirty years of dedicated social justice work looked like. I wanted to meet “G” as the homies call him. Maybe, just maybe, I wanted a dose of what they were offering, G’s favorite elixir, mercy and love.
On one side of the street, beyond the urban light rail overpass, was a busy Korean community with apartment buildings, numerous businesses, and stunning street art. On the other side of the street, sat a two-story golden yellow and tangerine orange building booming with men and women covered in gang tattoos.
This was no longer the community of Delores Mission, but the new location of the manifestation of one man’s love in a community the world has labeled unlovable. Situated on West Bruno St. was the home of Homeboy Industries including the Homegirl Café and Homeboy Bakery.
Boyle learned how hard it is for someone with a felony to get a job. He learned how hard it is for someone who has spent time in prison or a prison camp to integrate back into society. He discovered the difficulty an addict or a gang member has when wanting to establish a new life separate from their past if they go back to the same environment. He learned how impossible it is for someone with gang tattoos on their face to be seen as a child of God and not a menace to society.
G began in the 80s by helping transformed gang members find a job, get an education, and learn a trade. He worked in his community to convince businesses to open their minds to the possibility of employing a person who has done the work of rehabilitation.
After a few years, Gregory Boyle would launch Homeboy Bakery to employ ex-inmates and gang members. This would grow over time to become Homeboy Industries which now includes a fully functional and operating bakery, employment services, legal services, drug and alcohol counseling, life skills classes, and free tattoo removal. In fact, Homeboy Industries is the largest remover of tattoos in the world.
Here, in this place that seemed to now pour off the pages of my book and into reality, I saw what 30 years of heart-work and dreaming and praying can do. Jesus tells us that love can move mountains. The homies showed me it already has.
I encountered radical hospitality at Homeboy Industries. I encountered grace and awe as I met several of the homies he writes about in his book. To know parts of their stories and what they had to overcome to live into this transformed life, and then to see them thriving, is beyond anything I can describe.
After arriving there, I had the opportunity to join in on their building-wide morning meeting. They were all excited to see each other. And G, of course. They talked about different classes being offered and what the café was serving as a special that day. One homegirl shared that her brother had been killed that night before as a result of gang violence. Through tears she cried how she wished he had found the hope she did at Homeboy.
I was surrounded by revival gang members, ex-prisoners, and former violent offenders. But in that place, you didn’t know who did what. And it didn’t matter. What you saw were people. Faces. And what I witnessed that morning was the deep woundedness that comes from the streets. The echoes of death from years past and present. That morning, all of us, no matter where we came from or who we were, all of us wept together and all of us prayed together.
Paul tells us in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In that place, it doesn’t matter who you used to be. What matters is who you are and who you are becoming. And, we are all in it together.
Paul tells us in Romans 8:37-39, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
After the prayer at Homeboy, Father Gregory Boyle led us in the tradition of singing Happy Birthday to anyone who has one. We sang the song together with new meaning. When you’re not sure you’ll see another birthday or you’ve grown up in a world where making it to your twenties is rare, you sing that song with all you have. And at the very end, all the homies in the room shouted, “and we’re glad you were born.”
God births some incredible miracles out of tremendous chaos. G has taught, through the tenderness of love, that God didn’t make a mistake when each of us were created. God knew what God needed. We are not mistakes, and the goodness of God lives inside all of us.
Boyle said to us, “everyone is born wanting and needing the same things.” Somewhere along the way, trauma and circumstances keep us from the love we were created for. But every human soul longs for love, a life filled with joy, and a place of belonging. Every human soul longs to be celebrated for the creation God made them as.
No matter where circumstances and life may find us, we are not junk. And regardless of our past or what other people think, we are beautiful children of God. Never underestimate what God can do with a willing heart. God is real and at work within each of us. And by the way…I’m glad you were born.
Rev. Dr. Tiffany A. Nagel Monroe, Lead Pastor
(Recently Published in the Shawnee Star – January 2020)