As soon as I finished reading the physical copy of Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle, I got an audio copy from my local library. When I got close to being finished with the audio version, I bought a paperback copy. There is so much big, chewy stuff in here, and I wanted to keep unpacking the stories as well as committing them to memory.
The book is about the work that Father Greg (or “G” as most people call him) has done working in a poor, urban parish in Los Angeles. This book is not only about his experiences as a priest, but also his work with Homeboy Industries where gang members are given jobs and work experience in order to find an alternative to gang life. There are so many things about these stories that surprises me. The amount of pride and grace that these men and boys feel over having a job or being treated “like I’m somebody,” contradicts the notion that people are poor because they don’t want to work. There is so much pride in having a job that one young man tells G he has a job as the rat at a Chuck E. Cheese. He admits that the job sucks, but he is proud that when his son is born he will know his father is a “workin’ man.”
So many of these stories–stories where you manage to say the right thing, stories where you said the absolutely wrong thing, stories where a person doing the right thing can bring positive change to their life, and stories where even though someone did the right thing, and it all ended up going to shit anyway.
At times, this book reminded me of what I love about the work that I’ve done with teenagers, and at other times, I am blown away by the work that Father Greg does because I could never do the kind of work he does let alone with such compassion, grace, and faith. It is perhaps not surprising that a book about 20 years of working with gang members would involve quite a few funerals, but every one that is covered in the book feels crushing because G talks of all of the homies with the dignity and respect and affection that we should all be so lucky to experience.
All of the chapters are well structured collections of stories exploring a theme, and all of them are lovely sermons. The one that has stuck with me weeks after I finished the book for a second time is the notion of Slow Work. Slow work is the notion that big, hard life changing work doesn’t happen in an instant. It takes time, and it can seem painfully, frustratingly slow, but in order to work you have to keep showing up with the right attitude and an open heart and you keep trying and maybe it will work and maybe it never will, but you have to keep showing up because if you quit, then things don’t get better. That doesn’t make you a sucker, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t hold people accountable, but you do it because you do not believe that a person who has made bad choices should be dismissed as a bad person.
The next few years are going to require a lot of people being willing to engage in slow work. There are a lot of protests and demonstrations, and God knows that I can’t leave a message on my senator’s voice mails because they are full (and no one seems to be interested in clearing them out so that more people can leave messages and be heard). And not all of the resistance and protests will prevail, and that could very well lead to tragic stories of people whose government has turned its back on them. I’m not happy or indifferent to that fact, but that is the challenge of doing slow work. You keep showing up and you keep working because that is the only way things get better.