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New favorite book: ‘Tattoos on the Heart’ Review

Gangs are a life-and-death issue which more Christians need to care about.

Photo by Homeboy Industries (Father Greg in the middle)

For some reason, I like having favorites. I ask many people their favorite movie, song, band, or book, and most act like it’s something they couldn’t even fathom thinking about.

“Just one??” as if the idea of a favorite was a new concept to them.

But for whatever reason, my brain enjoys organizing everything into a neat and tidy hierarchy which rarely changes, but when it does, it feels like a big deal. To me. And because it feels like a big deal, I want to share about it.

High stoke levels make all of us evangelistic. 

Anyway, since I read Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl in 2014 and The Great Divorce in 2016, they’ve sort of been tied for my favorite books of all time. But now a new contender has entered the fight; a book which had me in tears every night I dared pick it up. It’s not so sad that you avoid reading it—the book is packed with humor which made me laugh out loud, and each chapter seemed to sink into some deep place within me which beckoned me to rise up and become better than I am; to see God as bigger than He was before. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

None of this matters. 

The point is, you need to read Tattoos on the Heart pronto, so let me tell you more about it. 

I recently described the book to my friend Elliot and I mentioned that one of the former gang members got shot and died. 

“Dude!” he exclaimed. “You can’t spoil the book for me!” 

What Elliot did not know, however, was that the cover portrays a casket beside some Catholic saint candles, implying the burial of yet another gang member. In 2017, 7 years after its publication, Father Greg (referred to as ‘G’ in the book) says he has buried 220 kids killed by gang violence.

So, telling you that there is a hefty amount of tragedy in this book by means of gang participation is not so much a spoiler as much as an introduction to the book. The question is not, Will there be violence and death? but, What do we do in the face of such overwhelming hopelessness, tragedy and loss? Do we lose hope and get discouraged, or do we keep trying for a better world?

Father Greg Boyle has answers for just those questions, and *spoiler* he doesn’t lose heart and give up. 

The book is essentially a collection of vignettes from his 30+ years working with gang members in LA. He moved into the barrio and one of his first hobbies became riding his bike around from neighborhood to neighborhood (each run by rival gangs) and get to know the inhabitants, urging them toward peace. 

Over the years, he shares lessons learned along the way and how his ministry—Homeboy Industries—became the largest gang rehabilitation organization in the world. I kept thinking I’d get tired of reading about each different gang member that walked into his office, or whom he picked up from prison, thinking that each one will have the same story, but G paints each individual with such care and heart that the stories never get dull across the span of 200 pages. I’m presently reading his second book, Barking to the Choir, which is essentially just Part 2, and I still haven’t tired about reading about these endearing, sweet, and wounded gang members. 

Don’t read these books is swearing bothers you more than death. Gang members cuss, and G presents an honest picture of them (and himself) without censorship. That aspect almost made me like it more; it’s not a squeaky clean ‘Christian book’ like we may be used to, and in my opinion, that only adds to the power of it. He also pulls from plenty of voices outside the typical Christian quotesters (C.S. Lewis and Chesterton), like the Dalai Llama and the poet Hafez.

There are a plethora of times these teens, with their face tattoos and baggy pants, are judged by outsiders, or where they surprise Boyle with a witty one-liner. I seriously laughed out loud often while reading in bed. 

Not every biography ends in tragedy either—while many of the gang members were buried prematurely, others were able to build a new life for themselves. These would often tear up while examining where they came from and how they ended up wherever they are now—married with kids and a ‘clean’ job. 

The reason this book hits me so hard is because the life of gang members is about life and death: two words we middle class caucasians use often, but don’t experience in our day-to-day lives. 

Gang members do. 

They are terribly acquainted with how it feels to put your homie in the ground. And then to do it again a few weeks later. They are no stranger to domestic abuse and drug addiction. Generosity and grace are foreign to them. 

In one episode, G notices that two brothers—abandoned by their parents with no one to care for them in the world—only have one pair of clothes. He gives them a Sears gift card and tells them to go get themselves some new rags. 

The brothers tear up and the younger asks the older, “Why do these people care about us? No one cares about us.”

This—gang life—is an issue more Christians need to care about and get involved in. If we care about such life-and-death issues as abortion or police brutality, then we also need to make room on that list for gang warfare. The plague of gangs in our communities is a life-or-death issue. And the solution is not harsher laws or higher prison walls—it’s love. It’s creating a new type of family so these hurting souls don’t need to find their family in a violent gang. 

If the world is going to be healed, it will not be through political reforms or juvenile detentions; it will be through the love, presence, and patience of organizations like Homeboy Industries.

One of the most infuriating concepts for Father Greg is the notion that some lives matter more than others. One semi-famous celebrity was caught in gang crossfire in LA, and detectives were reassigned and blocks were shut down. That same week, 8 gang members were gunned down and not one block was shut down or investigator reassigned. 

It’s as if these humans are denied the divine spark once they join a gang—or if they’re from the South Side of Chicago. Does the image of God evaporate upon being jumped in?

Since starting Tattoos, I have been looking into getting involved in gang rehabilitation in my own city, and I hope you do the same. I hope that, in the words of G, you worry less about how you stand, or how you look while standing, but that you focus on where you stand—beside the outsiders and low lives, beside those whom Christ stood with. Will we put ourselves in proximity to those who might make us uncomfortable, or will we stay curled up in our gated communities, safely away from those who don’t look/act like us? Don’t let the face tattoos scare you—the most fierce looking homies are often the most hurt.

My dad says that 50% of ministry is simply showing up. 
Love means inserting ourselves near those who need love the most. 

Tattoos on the Heart asks us, Will you show up? 

Will you offer yourself to those who need love the most?

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