It’s been a long time since I have read a book that completely took over my life, but this weekend Tattoos on the Heart by Greg Boyle did just that. I was mesmerized, horrified and enthralled by this book. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is the pastor of Dolores Mission, a Catholic church located in gang-land central in Los Angeles. The book is a collection of stories primarily about young people who have come to Boyle and Homeboy Industries to find a way to leave gang life. The stories in themselves are jaw droppers, but Boyle doesn’t display them for their shock value alone. He loves the young people, the homies, he lives among, and helps us to see past the raw, bloody landscape of their daily lives to the value and preciousness of the individual.
Believe it or not, Tattoos on the Heart is often a very funny book. Boyle’s sense of humor is sublime, and he shares many instances that made me laugh out loud – in public places, too. I also wept at the author’s description of the hopelessness that so many of the kids face, and at the mindless murders that occur between enemy gangs. Boyle writes that after the funeral of one young man, he realized that he had officiated at 8 burials in three weeks, all gang related deaths.
What I ultimately appreciate about this book is that Boyle introduces big, beautiful ideas in the midst of the most horrible conditions in life. Ideas like kinship, success, compassion and gladness. Boyle could have stayed with the sensational stories from the ghetto. It would still have been a fascinating book. But he didn’t. He has a poet’s eye and a lover’s heart, and because of that he teaches the reader to get beyond the blistered warzone of the barrios he describes to the beauty within the young people he has come to know. It’s a good skill to learn, no matter where you live, and Greg Boyle is just the one to teach it through the book Tattoos on the Heart.
Why you should read this book in less than 140 characters: Wildly funny, heart-breakingly sad, profoundly wise. Be careful, it might change you.