Boyle Brings Homies Home

Boyle_review_20190905Gregory Boyle. 2011. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. New York: Free Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The subject of teenage street gangs—weaponized teenagers—is dear to my heart because I came to Christ at the age of 13 in response to the testimony of a Puerto Rican gang member, Nicki Cruz, in New York City. When I went to a showing of The Cross and the Switchblade, even though my neighborhood did not have formalized gangs, violence was a daily part of life


In Tattoos on the Heart, Gregory Boyle writes about his experiences working with gangs in Los Angeles and founding Homeboy Industries that offers jobs to kids seeking to leave the gang life. He writes:

“I celebrate Catholic services, on a rotating basis, in twenty-five detention institutions in Los Angeles County—juvenile halls, probation camps, jails, and state youth authority facilities. After Mass, in the gym or chapel or classroom, I hand out my card. The infomercial is always the same: Call me when you get out. I’ll hook you up with a job—take off your tattoos—line ya up with a counselor. I won’t know where you are, but with this card, you’ll know where I am.” (187)

This book is about the kids that actually show up at his desk. He goes on:

“Clearly, the themes that bind the stories are things that matter to me. As a Jesuit for thirty-seven years and a priest for twenty-five years, it would not be possible for me to present these stories apart from God, Jesus, compassion, kinship, redemption, mercy, and our common call to delight in one another.” (xii-xiii)

While this book is not a memoir or chronology, it is accurate to describe it as narrative nonfiction.

Homeboy Industries

Homeboy Industries started in 1992 with the opening of a bakery that only employed former gang members (7). Boyle writes:

“Members from more than eight hundred gangs from all over the county now came seeking employment, tattoo removal, mental health counseling, and legal services…Homeboy Industries is not for those who need help, only for those who want it. In this sense, we are gang-rehabilitation center.” (8)

Seven years later, the bakery burned to the ground, apparently because of an electrical short (10-11). Because of their obvious success, they rebuilt and expanded.


Boyle writes in nine chapters preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by acknowledgments:

  1. God, I Guess
  2. Dis-Grace
  3. Compassion
  4. Water, Oil, Flame
  5. Slow Work
  6. Jurisdiction
  7. Gladness
  8. Success Kinship (vii)

We learn a few things about Boyle along the way, like he has a master’s in English, grew up in California, was the youngest priest in his dioceses, and began his ministry in Bolivia, but for the most part he tells stories about gang members that advance the themes that his writes about.

God’s Attributes

Boyle tells the story of his spiritual advisor whose father is dying of cancer. He would read to his father, hoping that we would fall asleep, but his father would just pretend to sleep while watching his son read. He writes:

“Bill knew that this evening ritual was really a story of a father who just couldn’t take his eyes off his kid. How much more so God?” (20)

Later he introduces us to Willy, who loves to brag but is a marginal gang member that does not really get into his “exploits” and who has serious problem with charming people out of their money. So Boyle drives him to the ATM and leaves him in the car, telling him to pray. When he gets back to the car with twenty bucks, Willy is noticeably quiet.

“You prayed, didn’t you?”

Without looking at him he responds: “Yes, I did.”

So what did God say to you?

“Well, first He said, Shut up and listen.” Then He said: “Heart full, eyes overflowing. “God … thinks … I’m … firme [Spanish].”

To the homies, firme means, “could not be one bit better.” (22-24) We all call God father, but Boyle gives a concise picture of what that looks like.


Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart that left me sorry when it ended. I just wanted to hear more. It personalized my image of a Hispanic gang member to the point that I could see their humanity, got angry at their poverty and isolation, and cheered their successes in finding a way out of the projects. I suspect that you will too.

Boyle Brings Homies Hom

Also See:

Value Of Life

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading

Trexler Road

ShipOfFools_web_10042015Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy,
he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,
who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
(1 Peter 1:3-5 ESV)

Trexler Road

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My room on Trexler Road backed up to Greenbelt National Park.[1]
It was on the ground floor so I could look out the window
To see the tree line against the stars at night
As I lay in the comfort of my bed.

The night’s darkness set my mind to racing—
Like a doe pursued in the underbrush by a hungry cougar
Or a soldier lost in an unfamiliar jungle and separated from his team.
But, the stars brought me comfort: I was not alone.

The break in tree line against the stars was the key
To walking paths in the woods at night without a flashlight
Except on cloudy nights or when you walk too fast
As I learned later as a counselor in camp.

People do crazy things when they are alone in the park.
The impulse to run in gangs led kids in the neighborhood
To arm themselves with homemade swords and shields
And build forts for protection.

But forts offered little protection.

On summer days, we attacked each other without mercy
Tossing rocks and dirt clods up into the air above roofless forts
And congratulating ourselves on the screams we heard from inside.

Vicious. We were vicious.

On school days, the streets were safe from bullies
Who preferred to pick fights on narrow bridges. [2]
If they challenged you to meet them at the bridge,
Then it was best to take the long way home.

So one day when my parents took me to see a movie at Constitutional Hall [3]
About a gang member[4] who was vicious and got into fights—

I could see myself.

When he bled, I bled.
When he was afraid, I was afraid.
When he finally came to Christ, I came to Christ.

From that day forward,
my fighting days were over.


[2] Charles Carroll Junior High School, now a middle school, sits on a hill surrounded on three sides by creeks that could be crossed only on fallen trees or, much later, bridges built for students on my end of town.

[3] The Cross and the Switchblade is a book written in 1962 by Pastor David Wilkerson with John and Elizabeth Sherrill. (


Continue Reading