By Gregory Boyle
Published by Free Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, Inc.
Reviewed by Luis R. Torres
A warning: it will be difficult for you to read this book and keep a dry eye.
In this remarkable book Gregory Boyle, the “barrio priest of East L.A.,” relates the story of a young “homie” who has died on the emergency room operating table. He was caught in the crossfire of perennial street gang warfare. His name was Manny. His body was a virtual mural of gang tattoos. At his bedside, the family has agreed to have the young man’s organs donated.
“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,” Boyle writes. As it happens, days before he was shot, Manny had taken a big step toward a better life. He had enrolled in community college. He was cut down before he ever attended his first class.
Boyle had rushed to his side at the hospital, embracing family members as they wept. He recalls what was said by the nurses. One nurse, evidently disgusted by the tattooed corpse of what she perceived to be a worthless gangbanger, tells the other: “I mean, who would want this monster’s heart?” The other nurse reacts to that angrily. “How dare you call this kid a monster? Didn’t you see his family, his friends? He was 19 years old for God’s sakes. He belonged to somebody. Shame on you.’” He belonged to somebody.
Boyle, a Catholic priest who has been working with street gang members in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, makes it clear that all of the homies he encounters belong to somebody. Indeed, he argues that we all belong to each other. It is, he suggests, how Jesus would view it. Boyle is, after all, a priest.
Early in this narrative Boyle, who established Homeboy Industries and related nonprofit businesses with the motto “Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job,” explains what this missal-sized book is NOT. It is not a detailed chronicle of the work he and supporters have done to help gang members turn their lives around and find positive alternatives to drugs and violence. This little book is about Boyle’s personal experiences in becoming one with the gang members, the outcasts of society, those young men and women who are feared and, most of all, misunderstood, by the general community.
It’s not too big a stretch to characterize Greg Boyle among the “vatos” as the equivalent of Mother Teresa among the outcasts of Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta).
This book is an intimate memoir. It is a collection of stories — homilies, really — about using empathy, compassion and — yes, love — to confront the issue of street gangs and the lives that are affected by the phenomenon. It is a little gem of a book, both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
The title of the book comes from something a homie once said to Boyle after the priest talked to him about honor and bravery . “Damn, I’m gonna tattoo that on my heart,” the young man told him.
For more than 20 years he has lived and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with street gang members. He began his work as a rookie priest at Dolores Mission in “the projects” just east of downtown L.A. He describes it as “the poorest parish in the Los Angeles archdiocese.” Eventually he founded Homeboy Industries. With its bakery, job placement agency and tattoo removal arm, Homeboy tries to help gang members with a job and a chance appreciate their inherent worth as human beings. Boyle suggests a little self esteem goes a long way.
Boyle writes with stark frankness and honesty about his mistakes in initially trying to “serve” the poor. Muddled and ultimately fruitless gestures to negotiate “peace treaties” between rival gangs were ill-conceived and doomed to failure. He learned that you don’t “serve” the down-and-out. You become one with them. This is done, he says, in the spirit of the genuine teachings, and example, of Jesus Christ. He has learned, he writes, about the essential ingredients of compassion, empathy and a transcendent dimension of kinship.
Regarding such kinship, he writes: “We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop.” Some might say that’s nice and pretty in theory, but not practical in the “real world.” Boyle would disagree.
Boyle’s book is treasure trove of anecdotes and reminiscences about his life among the homies of the Aliso Village and Pico Gardens housing projects of Boyle Heights. We are introduced to a number of memorable characters.
There is the malopropping homie who tells Boyle, “Hey, I hear your cancer is in intermission.” There is Chico who confesses he’s fed up with gang violence and the dead end path he’s on. Chico wants to learn about computers. Boyle gets him a job at a company that patiently teaches Chico about computers and the Internet. He seems on his way, when he is cut down by a driveby bullet. And there’s the story of Speedy.
After years of dodging bullets, Speedy musters the strength and wherewithal to turn his back on the gangs, move away from the projects, get a solid job and get married. He has two kids now and plans for them to go to college. His biggest kick is taking them to Barnes and Noble on Sundays. The word “future” now has genuine meaning.
When he stops in to see Father Boyle, the priest tells him, “You’ve got a good life.” He answers, “Yeah, I do.” And for the two of them, Boyle writes, “The tears arrive now in their fullness, unencumbered and welcome, even.”
Those who have followed Father Greg Boyle’s work over the years won’t be surprised by the warmth, humor and essential humanity of his stories. But readers might be surprised by how artfully written this book happens to be.
He is often asked if he is “successful” in the work he does. Boyle writes: “Naturally, I find myself heartened by Mother Teresa’s take: ‘We are not called to be successful, but faithful.’ This distinction is helpful for me as I barricade myself against the daily dread of setback.”
He has buried nearly 200 homies
A warning. It will be difficult to read this book with dry eyes.