Every year, the incoming first years read a book as part of the Common Reading Experience. As a member of the class of 2018, I had the privilege of reading Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle. To be honest, when I first heard we had to read a book, I was less than thrilled to have to complete more summer reading. I thought I was done with that after high school. But once I found out the book was about stories of compassion that a Jesuit priest experienced while working with gang members, I was a little intrigued. It was not the typical book I would pick up and read; I’m more of a Nicolas Sparks girl myself. As I began to read about the lives of the gang members Father Boyle came in contact with, I felt the pain of what they had to experience on a daily basis; gun violence, death of family members, grief, and drug problems. But through all the pain and suffering, Father Boyle was able to see the goodness of the people he came in contact with every day.
Homeboy Ministries was started so those recently released from prison and those looking to start over could have a job. Father Boyle wanted to help the community get back on its feet. He was stationed in one of the most unsafe, gang-heavy areas of Los Angeles, California. Through this book, Father Boyle did not hope it would solve the gang problem, but that the stories told and the bravery shown by the Homies and Homegirls could be tattooed on the hearts of the readers.
This book is full of wonderful stories of compassion that tug at the heartstrings of the reader. On one page, the reader experiences the story of a homie who finally gets back on his feet, only to turn the page and find out this person was killed in a gang fight. Just when you think the homie’s life is getting better, God takes his life away in an act of pure cruelty. That was a part of the book that when I first read it did not enjoy so well. It made the book seem very depressing. But Father Boyle couldn’t help that; it was a fact of life for them. But in the midst of these sad stories, there was almost always a moment of grace as God showed up in unexpected ways.
My favorite chapter in the book is called “Compassion.” In fact, I wrote my Common Reading Experience essay on the question asking about compassion and how it relates to sympathy and empathy. To start the chapter, Father Boyle describes a time when he was working at Folsom Prison. He asked the inmates what sympathy and empathy meant to them. They were able to give answers to that question without a problem. But as soon as he asked them what compassion meant, they had more trouble with that. One inmate said compassion was completely different from sympathy and empathy. He said “Compassion…IS…God” (Boyle 62). I love this idea. God certainly is compassion. Father Boyle describes compassion as “full throttle” (Boyle 63). Every time there was a story of compassion, I could see God working through that situation to show it to the people in the story. There are too many examples of this to even pick out the best one.
Tattoos on the Heart tells the experiences Father Boyle had while working at Homeboy Industries. These emotional stories include stories of great courage and weave in wonderful examples of compassion in time of evil and violence in gang heavy Los Angeles. There were moments of joy, sadness, humor, and grief, but through it all, God managed to be present to the Homies and Homegirls, and to Father Boyle. These stories will forever be tattooed on my heart.
Devon James is a first year at Xavier University double majoring in Theology and Communications. She is very involved in the CFJ, including a work-study job. She enjoys singing and browsing Pinterest in her free time.