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

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