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Tattoos on the Heart

Forgiveness and compassion are evident at a youth outreach program in Los Angeles

By Lee Simpson

Tattoos on the Heart
By Gregory Boyle
(Simon & Schuster) $32.99

Too often books that are labelled inspirational are not. However, this volume left an impact that remains. I quote it for sermons. I exhort others to read it. I have purchased copies as gifts.

Father Gregory Boyle shares his tale of founding Homeboy Industries, a youth outreach in South Los Angeles that helps former gang members become contributing members of society through job placement, training and education.

These youth, some as young as 12, enact violence beyond imagining. Most people would fearfully turn away in disgust. But Boyle’s motto is “Just assume the answer to every question is compassion.” Indeed, the miracle of this story lies in the boundlessness of Boyle’s compassion.

Boyle forgives everything, even murder, urging a “compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

By introducing the young men and women who work in Homeboy’s bakery, silkscreening plant and drop-off centre, Tattoos on the Heart illustrates how boundless sympathy can transform lives. We meet Moreno, a public school dropout and father at 16, sliding into drugs and gang warfare by 18. Now in his mid-20s, he works the reception desk. Michelle and Emily are rescued from prostitution.  

Then there’s Looney, who goes from turmoil at home to juvenile detention and back home again  — but still manages to pull off As on his report card, thanks to the Homeboy study hall. Looney’s story mirrors that of many of his peers: parents plagued by mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse; three generations never knowing a paid job or graduating from high school; bleak housing conditions; chaos, confusion, dirt and despair.

How to get beyond all this to hope? Boyle draws his inspiration from God and simply refuses to leave one soul out of the loop of compassion.

Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.
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