Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Tattoos on the Heart: Greg Boyle's Reflections on Employing Los Angeles Gang Members


If you're interested in experiencing the crazy world of faith ventures, Father Greg Boyle's recent book, Tattoos on the Heart, is a must read.

The book wonderfully captures the flavor of employing ex-gang members rebuilding lives at Los Angeles' Homeboy Industries. Instead of being a how to book or a history of Homeboy, Boyle organizes his stories around nine spiritual themes that arise out of his unique ministry. These include the importance of God, the damaging nature of dis-grace, the slow nature of God's work, the difficulty of defining success apart from God and the value of kinship.

Indeed, these themes are fundamental to any faith venture business as ministry and are a good primer for anyone considering such an activity. 

In particular, I loved how he understands Homeboy to be a place that absolutely needs God to show up in order to be successful. He tells how depending on God for resources became an exercise of faith. "We constantly lived in the paradox of precariousness. The money was never there when you needed it, and it was always on time." (Tattoos on the Heart, p. 5)
He understands Homeboy Industries to be all about God. It is not good business in the traditional sense. He writes, "Not much in my life makes sense outside of God. Certainly, a place like Homeboy Industries is all folly and bad business unless the core of the endeavor seeks to imitate the kind of God one ought to believe in. In the end, I am helpless to explain why anyone would accompany those on the margins were it not for some anchored belief that the Ground of all Being thought this was a good idea." (Tattoos on the Heart, p 21)

Further, I enjoyed Father Greg's assertion that faith venture work is a slow journey. As Americans, we are culturally addicted to the idea of fast results. He gently reminds that God shows up but we must learn to trust in his slow approach. 
"Fortunately, none of us can save anybody," he notes. "But we all find ourselves in this dark, windowless room, fumbling for grace and flashlights. You aim the light this time, and I'll do it next. The slow work of God. And you hope, and you wait, for the light--this astonishing light." (Tattoos on the Heart, p 128)

And sometimes God's activity becomes difficult to see. Indeed, the very nature of success becomes hard to measure in a faith venture. "People want me to tell them success stories. I understand this. They are the stories you want to tell, after all. So why does my scalp tighten whenever I am asked this? Surely, part of it comes from my being utterly convinced I am a fraud." (Tattoos on the Heart, p. 167)

He continues:
Twenty years of this work has taught me that God has greater comfort with inverting categories than I do. What is success and what is failure? What is good and what is bad? Setback or progress? Great stock these days, especially in nonprofits (and who can blame them), is placed in evidence-based outcomes. People, funders in particular, want to know if what you do "works." Are you in the end successful? Naturally, I find myself heartened by Mother Theresa's take: 'We are not called to be successful, but faithful'...For once you choose to hang out with folks who carry more burden than they can bear, all  bets seem to be off. Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful, keeps you from truly seeing whoever's sitting in front of you. Embracing a strategy and and an approach you can believe in is sometimes the best you can do on any given day. If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success becomes God's business. I find it hard enough to just be faithful. (Tattoos on the Heart, 167-168)

I could go on and on with Boyle fantastic insights on the unique nature of employing individuals rebuilding lives. But you really need to get this book for yourself. Tattoos on the Heart reflects Boyle's unique talent at telling the stories of the community he serves.

A few years ago, I presented at a Social Enterprise Alliance conference following a talk by Father Greg. He is one of the best and most engaging speakers ever. If you ever get a chance to attend one of his talks, make it a priority. In the meantime, grab the book and enjoy this picture of a unique community of love.

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