For twenty years, Gregory Boyle has run Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world. In
Tattoos on the Heart, he distills his experience working in the ghetto into a breathtaking series of parables inspired by faith.
Arranged by theme and filled with sparkling humor and glowing generosity, these essays offer a stirring look at how full our lives could be if we could find the joy in loving others and in being loved unconditionally. From giant, tattooed Cesar, shopping at JCPenney fresh out of prison, we learn how to feel worthy of God''s love. From ten-year-old Lula we learn the importance of being known and acknowledged. From Pedro we understand the kind of patience necessary to rescue someone from the darkness. In each chapter we benefit from Boyle’s gentle, hard-earned wisdom.
These essays about universal kinship and redemption are moving examples of the power of unconditional love and the importance of fighting despair. Gorgeous and uplifting, Tattoos on the Heart reminds us that no life is less valuable than another.
"Destined to become a classic of both urban reportage and contemporary spirituality."
--"The Los Angeles Times
"Destined to become a classic of both urban reportage and contemporary spirituality."
--"The Los Angeles Times
"A spiritual masterpiece touching the innermost sanctum of the human soul. Boyle approaches each person as a child of God and fully deserving of love and compassion. His capacity to reach the heart of the most hardened, and to see the best in everyone, inspires. I laughed, wept, and underlined on virtually every page."
--KERRY KENNEDY, FOUNDER OF THE RFK CENTER FOR JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS
"An astonishing book . . . about suffering and dignity, death and resurrection, one of my favorite books in years. It is lovely and tough and tender beyond my ability to describe and left me in tears of both sorrow and laughter."--ANNE LAMOTT, AUTHOR OF GRACE (EVENTUALLY)
"An extraordinary reflection of a life totally committed to reshaping and redirecting the lives of countless young gang members (from L.A.''s gang culture), Greg Boyle''s Tattoos on the Heart proves one man with courage is a majority." --MARTIN SHEEN
"Father Boyle reminds us all that every single child and youth is a part of God''s ''jurisdiction''--and when they know that we are seeing them as God does, they are capable of great things. Father Boyle is a national treasure."
--MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN, PRESIDENT, CHILDREN''S DEFENSE FUND
"One of the bravest, most humane, heartbreaking, brilliant, and hopeful stories I''ve read in ages. Father Greg, the Gandhi of the Gangs, fills Tattoos with unquenchable soul force and down-to-earth love." --JACK KORNFIELD, AUTHOR OF A PATH WITH HEART
"Sometimes we are allowed to see in our own lifetimes what we were supposed to see in the life and ministry of Jesus. Read, and let your life be changed!"
--FATHER RICHARD ROHR, O.F.M., CENTER FOR ACTION AND CONTEMPLATION, ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO
"Tattoos on the Heart is an astounding book and a remarkable testament. No one brings more triumph and tragedy to the street gang story than Greg Boyle. No one brings more conviction and compassion than Greg Boyle. And no one writes the gang story more beautifully."
--MALCOLM KLEIN, PROFESSOR EMERITUS, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
"Tattoos on the Heart is an honest, raw, and compelling collection from Father Greg Boyle''s life and work with gang-involved youth. His commitment should teach us all a lesson in compromise, sharing, learning, loving, and, most important, living life to the fullest." --ANJELICA HUSTON
“Destined to become a classic of both urban reportage and contemporary spirituality.”
—"The Los Angeles Times
"Incandescent, always hope-filled and often hilarious. Boyle somehow maintains an exuberant voice that celebrates the strength, compassion and humanity of people often demonized. He simply highlights charity and goodness wherever they are found. Boyle intersperses his narratives about gang members and his work with them with theological and spiritual reflections from a variety of theologians, poets and other writers. By introducing book-buying, highly educated readers to people we may never otherwise encounter, Boyle aspires to "broaden the parameters of our kinship.''"--"The Christian Century"
About the Author
Gregory Boyle is an American Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. He has received the California Peace Prize and been inducted into the California Hall of Fame. In 2014, the White House named Boyle a Champion of Change. He received the University of Notre Dame’s 2017 Laetare Medal, the oldest honor given to American Catholics. He is the acclaimed author of
Tattoos on the Heart and
Barking to the Choir.
The Whole Language is his third book, and he will be donating all net proceeds to Homeboy Industries.
God can get tiny, if we’re not careful. I’m certain we all have an image of God that becomes the touchstone, the controlling principle, to which we return when we stray.
My touchstone image of God comes by way of my friend and spiritual director, Bill Cain, S.J. Years ago he took a break from his own ministry to care for his father as he died of cancer. His father had become a frail man, dependent on Bill to do everything for him. Though he was physically not what he had been, and the disease was wasting him away, his mind remained alert and lively. In the role reversal common to adult children who care for their dying parents, Bill would put his father to bed and then read him to sleep, exactly as his father had done for him in childhood. Bill would read from some novel, and his father would lie there, staring at his son, smiling. Bill was exhausted from the day’s care and work and would plead with his dad, “Look, here’s the idea. I read to you, you fall asleep.” Bill’s father would impishly apologize and dutifully close his eyes. But this wouldn’t last long. Soon enough, Bill’s father would pop one eye open and smile at his son. Bill would catch him and whine, “Now, come on.” The father would, again, oblige, until he couldn’t anymore, and the other eye would open to catch a glimpse of his son. This went on and on, and after his father’s death, 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? Anthony De Mello writes, “Behold the One beholding you, and smiling.”
God would seem to be too occupied in being unable to take Her eyes off of us to spend any time raising an eyebrow in disapproval. What’s true of Jesus is true for us, and so this voice breaks through the clouds and comes straight at us. “You are my Beloved, in whom I am wonderfully pleased.” There is not much “tiny” in that.
* * *
In 1990 the television news program 60 Minutes came to Dolores Mission Church. One of its producers had read a Sunday Los Angeles Times Magazine article about my work with gang members in the housing projects. Mike Wallace, also seeing the piece, wanted to do a report. I was assured that I’d be getting “Good Mike.” These were the days when the running joke was “you know you’re going to have a bad day when Mike Wallace and a 60 Minutes film crew show up at your office.”
Wallace arrived at the poorest parish in Los Angeles in the stretchest of white limousines, stepped out of the car, wearing a flak jacket, covered with pockets, prepared, I suppose, for a journey into the jungle.
For all his initial insensitivity, toward the end of the visit, in a moment unrecorded, Wallace did say to me, “Can I admit something? I came here expecting monsters. But that’s not what I found.”
Later, in a recorded moment, we are sitting in a classroom filled with gang members, all students in our Dolores Mission Alternative School. Wallace points at me and says, “You won’t turn these guys in to the police.” Which seems quite silly to me at the time. I say something lame like, “I didn’t take my vows to the LAPD.” But then Wallace turns to a homie and grills him on this, saying over and over, “He won’t turn you in, will he?” And then he asks the homie, “Why is that? Why do you think he won’t turn you over to the police?” The kid just stares at Mike Wallace, shrugs, nonplussed, and says, “God . . . I guess.”
This is a chapter on God, I guess. Truth be told, the whole book is. Not much in my life makes any 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.
* * *
Rascal is not one to take advice. He can be recalcitrant, defensive, and primed for the fight. Well into his thirties, he’s a survivor. His truck gets filled with scrap metal and with this, somehow, he feeds his kids and manages to stay on this side of eviction. To his credit, he bid prison time and gang-banging good-bye a long time ago. Rascal sometimes hits me up for funds, and I oblige if I have it and if his attitude doesn’t foul my mood too much. But you can’t tell him anything—except this one day, he actually listens. I am going on about something—can’t remember what but I can see he’s listening. When I’m done, he says simply, “You know, I’m gonna take that advice, and I’m gonna let it marinate,” pointing at his heart, “right here.”
Perhaps we should all marinate in the intimacy of God. Genesis, I suppose, got it right—“In the beginning, God.” Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, also spoke about the task of marinating in the “God who is always greater.”
He writes, “Take care always to keep before your eyes, first, God.” The secret, of course, of the ministry of Jesus, was that God was at the center of it. Jesus chose to marinate in the God who is always greater than our tiny conception, the God who “loves without measure and without regret.” To anchor yourself in this, to keep always before your eyes this God is to choose to be intoxicated, marinated in the fullness of God. An Algerian Trappist, before his martyrdom, spoke to this fullness: “When you fill my heart, my eyes overflow.”
* * *
Willy crept up on me from the driver’s side. I had just locked the office and was ready to head home at 8:00 p.m.
“Shit, Willy,” I say, “Don’t be doin’ that.”
“?’Spensa, G,” he says, “My bad. It’s just . . . well, my stomach’s on échale. Kick me down with twenty bones, yeah?”
“Dog, my wallet’s on échale,” I tell him. A “dog” is the one upon whom you can rely—the role-dog, the person who has your back. “But get in. Let’s see if I can trick any funds outta the ATM.”
Willy hops on board. He is a life force of braggadocio and posturing—a thoroughly good soul—but his confidence is outsize, that of a lion wanting you to know he just swallowed a man whole. A gang member, but a peripheral one at best—he wants more to regale you with his exploits than to actually be in the midst of any. In his midtwenties, Willy is a charmer, a quintessential homie con man who’s apt to coax money out of your ATM if you let him. This night, I’m tired and I want to go home.
It’s easier not to resist. The Food 4 Less on Fourth and Soto has the closest ATM. I tell Willy to stay in the car, in case we run into one of Willy’s rivals inside.
“Stay here, dog,” I tell him, “I’ll be right back.”
I’m not ten feet away when I hear a muffled “Hey.”
It’s Willy, and he’s miming, “the keys,” from the passenger seat of my car. He’s making over-the-top, key-in-the-ignition señales.
“The radio,” he mouths, as he holds a hand, cupping his ear.
I wag a finger, “No, chale.” Then it’s my turn to mime. I hold both my hands together and enunciate exaggeratedly, “Pray.”
Willy sighs and levitates his eyeballs. But he’s putty. He assumes the praying hands pose and looks heavenward—cara santucha. I proceed on my quest to the ATM but feel the need to check in on Willy only ten yards later.
I turn and find him still in the prayer position, seeming to be only half-aware that I’m looking in on him.
I return to the car, twenty dollars in hand, and get in. Something has happened here. Willy is quiet, reflective, and there is a palpable sense of peace in the vehicle. I look at Willy and say, “You prayed, didn’t you?”
He doesn’t look at me. He’s still and quiet. “Yeah, I did.”
I start the car.
“Well, what did God say to you?” I ask him.
“Well, first He said, ‘Shut up and listen.’”
“So what d’ya do?”
“Come on, G,” he says, “What am I sposed ta do? I shut up and listened.”
I begin to drive him home to the barrio. I’ve never seen Willy like this. He’s quiet and humble—no need to convince me of anything or talk me out of something else.
“So, son, tell me something,” I ask. “How do you see God?”
“God?” he says, “That’s my dog right there.”
“And God?” I ask, “How does God see you?”
Willy doesn’t answer at first. So I turn and watch as he rests his head on the recliner, staring at the ceiling of my car. A tear falls down his cheek. Heart full, eyes overflowing. “God . . . thinks . . . I’m . . . firme.”
To the homies, firme means, “could not be one bit better.”
Not only does God think we’re firme, it is God’s joy to have us marinate in that.
* * *
The poet Kabir asks, “What is God?” Then he answers his own question: “God is the breath inside the breath.”
Willy found his way inside the breath and it was firme.
I came late to this understanding in my own life—helped along by the grace-filled pedagogy of the people of Dolores Mission. I was brought up and educated to give assent to certain propositions. God is love, for example. You concede “God loves us,” and yet there is this lurking sense that perhaps you aren’t fully part of the “us.” The arms of God reach to embrace, and somehow you feel yourself just outside God’s fingertips.
Then you have no choice but to consider that “God loves me,” yet you spend much of your life unable to shake off what feels like God only embracing you begrudgingly and reluctantly. I suppose, if you insist, God has to love me too. Then who can explain this next moment, when the utter fullness of God rushes in on you—when you completely know the One in whom “you move and live and have your being,” as St. Paul writes. You see, then, that it has been God’s joy to love you all along. And this is completely new.
Every time one of the Jesuits at Dolores Mission would celebrate a birthday, the same ritual would repeat itself. “You know,” one of the other Jesuits would say to me, for example, “Your birthday is Wednesday. The people are throwing a ‘surprise party’ for you on the Saturday before.” The protests are as predictable as the festivities.
“Oh come on,” I’d say, “Can’t we pass this year?”
“Look,” one of my brothers would say to me, “This party is not for you—it’s for the people.”
And so I am led into the parish hall for some bogus meeting, and I can hear the people “shushing” one another—El Padre ya viene. As I step in the door, lights go on, people shout, mariachis strike themselves up. I am called upon to muster up the same award-winning look of shock from last year. They know that you know. They don’t care. They don’t just love you—it’s their joy to love you.
The poet Rumi writes, “Find the real world, give it endlessly away, grow rich flinging gold to all who ask. Live at the empty heart of paradox. I’ll dance there with you—cheek to cheek.”
Dancing cumbias with the women of Dolores Mission rhymes with God’s own wild desire to dance with each one of us cheek to cheek.
Meister Eckhart says “God is greater than God.” The hope is that our sense of God will grow as expansive as our God is. Each tiny conception gets obliterated as we discover more and more the God who is always greater.
* * *
At Camp Paige, a county detention facility near Glendora, I was getting to know fifteen-year-old Rigo, who was about to make his first communion. The Catholic volunteers had found him a white shirt and black tie. We still had some fifteen minutes before the other incarcerated youth would join us for Mass in the gym, and I’m asking Rigo the basic stuff about his family and his life. I ask about his father.
“Oh,” he says, “he’s a heroin addict and never really been in my life. Used to always beat my ass. Fact, he’s in prison right now. Barely ever lived with us.”
Then something kind of snaps in him—an image brings him to attention.
“I think I was in the fourth grade,” he begins. “I came home. Sent home in the middle of the day. Got into some pedo at school. Can’t remember what. When I got home, my jefito was there. He was hardly ever there. My dad says, ‘Why they send you home?’ And cuz my dad always beat me, I said, ‘If I tell you, promise you won’t hit me?’ He just said, ‘I’m your father. ’Course I’m not gonna hit you.’ So I told him.”
Rigo is caught short in the telling. He begins to cry, and in moments he’s wailing and rocking back and forth. I put my arm around him. He is inconsolable. When he is able to speak and barely so, he says only, “He beat me with a pipe . . . with . . . a pipe.”
When Rigo composes himself, I ask, “And your mom?” He points some distance from where we are to a tiny woman standing by the gym’s entrance.
“That’s her over there.” He pauses for a beat, “There’s no one like her.” Again, some slide appears in his mind, and a thought occurs.
“I’ve been locked up for more than a year and a half. She comes to see me every Sunday. You know how many buses she takes every Sunday—to see my sorry ass?”
Then quite unexpectedly he sobs with the same ferocity as before. Again, it takes him some time to reclaim breath and an ability to speak. Then he does, gasping through his tears. “Seven buses. She takes . . . seven . . . buses. Imagine.”
How, then, to imagine, the expansive heart of this God—greater than God—who takes seven buses, just to arrive at us. We settle sometimes for less than intimacy with God when all God longs for is this solidarity with us. In Spanish, when you speak of your great friend, you describe the union and kinship as being de uña y mugre—our friendship is like the fingernail and the dirt under it. Our image of who God is and what’s on God’s mind is more tiny than it is troubled. It trips more on our puny sense of God than over conflicting creedal statements or theological considerations.
The desire of God’s heart is immeasurably larger than our imaginations can conjure. This longing of God’s to give us peace and assurance and a sense of well-being only awaits our willingness to cooperate with God’s limitless magnanimity.
* * *
“Behold the One beholding you and smiling.” It is precisely because we have such an overactive disapproval gland ourselves that we tend to create God in our own image. It is truly hard for us to see the truth that disapproval does not seem to be part of God’s DNA. God is just too busy loving us to have any time left for disappointment.
* * *
One day I receive a phone call in my office around three in the afternoon. It’s from a twenty-five-year-old homie named Cesar. I have known him for most of his life. I can remember first meeting him when he was a little kid in Pico Gardens during the earthquake of 1987 when the projects had become a tent city. People lived outside in carpas well past the time of any danger. Cesar was one of the many kids seeking reassurance from me.
“Are we gonna be okay? Is this the end of the world?”
I spent every evening of those two weeks walking the tents, and I always associate Cesar with that period.
He’s calling me today because he has just finished a four-year stint in prison. Turned out, earthquakes were the least of Cesar’s troubles. He had joined the local gang, since there wasn’t anyone around to “chase his ass” and rein him in. At this point in his life, Cesar had been locked up more often than not. Cesar and I chitchat on the phone, dispatching the niceties in short order—“It’s good to be out—I’d love to see ya”—then Cesar says, “Let me just cut to the cheese.”
This was not a spin I had heard on this expression before.
“You know, I just got outta the pinta and don’t really have a place to stay. Right now, I’m staying with a friend in his apartment—here in El Monte—away from the projects and the hood and the homies. Y sabes qué, I don’t got no clothes. My lady she left me, and she burned all my clothes, you know, in some anger toward me, I guess.”
I’m waiting for him to cut to the cheese.
“So I don’t got no clothes,” he says. “Can you help me?”
“Sure, son,” I say, “Look, it’s three now. I’ll pick you up after work, at six o’clock.”
I drive to the apartment at the appointed hour, and I’m surprised to see Cesar standing on the sidewalk waiting for me—I’m used to searching for homies when asked to retrieve them. I guess you might say that Cesar is a scary-looking guy. It’s not just the fact that he’s large and especially, fresh out of prison, newly “swole” from lifting weights. He exudes menace. So there he is, standing and waiting for me. When he sees it’s me, this huge ex-con does this bouncing up and down, yippy-skippy, happy-to-see-ya, hand-clapping gleeful jig.
He flies into my car and throws his arms around me. “When I saw you right now, G, I got aaaallllll happy!”
There was some essence to him that hadn’t changed from that child wanting to know that the world was safe from earthquakes.
We go to JCPenney, and I tell him he can buy two hundred dollars’ worth of clothes. In no time, his arms are filled with the essentials, and we both are standing in a considerable line to pay for it all. All the other customers are staring at Cesar. Not only is he menacing, but he seems to have lost his volume knob. People can’t help but turn and look, though they all take great pains to pretend they’re not listening.
“Hey,” he says, in what you might call a loud-ass voice, “See dat couple over there?”
I am not the only one turning and looking. The entire check-out line shifts. Cesar points to a young couple with a tiny son.
“Well, I walk up to that guy and I look at him and I say, ‘Hey, don’t I know you?’ And his ruca grabs the morrito and holds him and shakes her head and says, ‘NO, WE DON’T KNOW YOU!’ all panickeada así. Then the vato looks at me like he’s gonna have a damn paro cardiaco, and he shakes his head, ‘NO, I DON’T KNOW YOU.’ Then I look at him more closer, and I say, ‘Oh, my bad, I thought you were somebody else.’ And they get aaaaallllll relaxed when I say that.” He takes a breath. “I mean, damn, G . . . do I look that scary?”
I shake my head no and say, “Yeah, pretty much, dog.”
The customers can’t help themselves, and we all laugh.
I drop Cesar off at his friend’s apartment. He becomes quiet and vulnerable, as frightened as a child displaced by shifting ground.
“I just don’t want to go back. La neta, I’m scared.”
“Look, son,” I say to him, “Who’s got a better heart than you? And God is at the center of that great, big ol’ heart. Hang on to that, dog—cuz you have what the world wants. So, what can go wrong?”
We say our good-byes, and as I watch him walk away alone, I find his gentleness and disarming sweet soul a kind of elixir, soothing my own doubts and calling me to fearlessness.
At three o’clock in the morning, the phone rings. It’s Cesar. He says what every homie says when they call in the middle of the night, “Did I wake you?”
I always think Why no, I was just waiting and hoping that you’d call.
Cesar is sober, and it’s urgent that he talk to me.
“I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father—ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question.”
Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I . . . been . . . your son?”
“Oh, hell, yeah,” I say.
“Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.”
Now his voice becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbing. “Then . . . I will be . . . your son. And you . . . will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?”
In this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having. The voice broke through the clouds of his terror and the crippling mess of his own history, and he felt himself beloved. God, wonderfully pleased in him, is where God wanted Cesar to reside.
Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, says, “How narrow is the gate that leads to life.” Mistakenly, I think, we’ve come to believe that this is about restriction. The way is narrow. But it really wants us to see that narrowness is the way.
St. Hedwig writes, “All is narrow for me, I feel so vast.” It’s about funneling ourselves into a central place. Our choice is not to focus on the narrow, but to narrow our focus. The gate that leads to life is not about restriction at all. It is about an entry into the expansive. There is a vastness in knowing you’re a son/daughter worth having. We see our plentitude in God’s own expansive view of us, and we marinate in this.
* * *
In March of 2004, Scrappy walks into our office and, I’m not proud to admit it, my heart sinks. From the perch of my own glass-enclosed office, I can see Scrappy talking to Marcos, the receptionist, who is also from Scrappy’s gang. He is apparently signing up to see me. I haven’t seen Scrappy in ten years, since he’s been incarcerated all that time, but even before that, I’m not sure if he’s ever set foot in my office. My heart is in some lower register. Let’s just say Scrappy and I have never been on good terms. I first met him in the summer of 1984. I was newly ordained at Dolores Mission. He was fifteen years old, and his probation officer assigned him to the church to complete his hours of community service. The chip located on his shoulder was the size of a Pontiac. “I don’t have to listen to you.” “I don’t have to do what you say.”
Some five years later, I am standing in front of a packed church, preaching at the funeral of one of Scrappy’s homeboys. “If you love Cuko and want to honor his memory,” I say to the congregation, “then you will work for peace and love your enemies.” Immediately, Scrappy stands up and moves out of his pew and into the center aisle. All eyes are on him. I stop speaking. The eternal scowl I had come to know in that summer of 1984 is fixed on me as he walks straight ahead. We stand face-to-face, he mad-dogs me with some intensity, then turns and exits the church by the side door.
Three years later, I’m riding my bike, as I would in those days, “patrolling” the projects at night. I enter Scrappy’s barrio, and there is a commotion. The homies have formed a circle and clearly two of their rank are “goin’ head up.” I break through the mob and, indeed, find Scrappy throwing down with one of his own homies. I discover later that the beef was over some jaina (girl). I stop the fight, and Scrappy reaches into the front waist of his pants and pulls out a gun that he waves around wildly. The crowd seems to be more horrified than I am. There are great gasps and pleas,
“Hey, dog, damn, put the gun away.”
“Don’t disrespect G.”
Scrappy steadies the gun right at me and grunts a half laugh, “Shiiittt, I’ll shoot his ass too.”
Are you getting a sense of what our relationship was like?
So years later when I see him enter my office, it takes me a moment, but I locate my heart, hiding in Filene’s basement, and Marcos intercoms me: “Scrappy’s here.” Then his voice gets squeaky and tentative. “Ya wanna see him?” Marcos knew enough that this would be in some doubt. “?’Course, send him in.”
Scrappy is not a large fellow, but there is no fat in his midsize build. His hair is slicked back and his moustache is understated. He hugs me only because not to would be too awkward. We have, after all, known each other for twenty years.
He sits and wastes no time.
“Look, let’s just be honest with each other and talk man to man. You know that I’ve never disrespected you.”
I figure, why not, I’m gonna go for it.
“Well, how ’bout the time you walked out on my homily at Cuko’s funeral? . . . or the time you pulled a cuete out on me?”
Scrappy looks genuinely perplexed by what I’ve just said and cocks and scrunches his face like a confused beagle.
“Yeah, well . . . besides that,” he says.
Then we do something we never have in our two decades of knowing each other. We laugh. But really, truly laugh—head-resting-on-my-desk laughter. We carry on until this runs its course, and then Scrappy settles into the core of his being, beyond the bravado of his chingón status in his gang.
“I have spent the last twenty years building a reputation for myself . . . and now . . . I regret . . . that I even have one.”
And then in another first, he cries. But really, truly cries. He is doubled over, and the rocking seems to soothe the release of this great ache. When the wailing stops and he comes up for air, he daubs his eyes and runs his sleeve across his nose. He finally makes eye contact.
“Now what do I do? I know how to sell drugs. I know how to gangbang. I know how to shank fools in prison. I don’t know how to change the oil in my car. I know how to drive, but I don’t know how to park. And I don’t know how to wash my clothes except in the sink of a cell.”
I hire him that day, and he begins work the next morning on our graffiti crew.
Scrappy discovered, as Scripture has it, “that where he is standing is holy ground.” He found the narrow gate that leads to life. God’s voice was not of restriction, to “shape up or ship out.” Scrappy found himself in the center of vastness and right in the expansive heart of God. The sacred place toward which God had nudged Scrappy all his life is not to be arrived at, but discovered.
Scrappy did not knock on the door so God would notice him. No need for doors at all. Scrappy was already inside.
* * *
God seems to be an unwilling participant in our efforts to pigeonhole Him. The minute we think we’ve arrived at the most expansive sense of who God is, “this Great, Wild God,” as the poet Hafez writes, breaks through the claustrophobia of our own articulation, and things get large again. Richard Rohr writes in Everything Belongs that nothing of our humanity is to be discarded. God’s unwieldy love, which cannot be contained by our words, wants to accept all that we are and sees our humanity as the privileged place to encounter this magnanimous love. No part of our hardwiring or our messy selves is to be disparaged. Where we stand, in all our mistakes and imperfection, is holy ground. It is where God has chosen to be intimate with us and not in any way but this. Scrappy’s moment of truth was not in recognizing what a disappointment he’s been all these years. It came in realizing that God had been beholding him and smiling for all this time, unable to look anywhere else. It is certainly true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, nor can you judge a book by its first chapter—even if that chapter is twenty years long. When the vastness of God meets the restriction of our own humanity, words can’t hold it. The best we can do is find the moments that rhyme with this expansive heart of God.
Shortly after I was ordained, I spent a year in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It was a gracious time that changed me forever. My Spanish was quite poor, and the year was to be filled with language study and ministry. I could celebrate the Eucharist in Spanish (after a summer at Dolores Mission), but I was a slave to the missal for some time to come. Early on, I began to minister to a community named Temporal, which had been without a priest for a long time. A few weeks into my time there, I was approached by a group of health workers who asked me to celebrate Mass in Tirani. This was a Quechua community located high above Cochabamba, whose indigenous folks harvested flowers for market. It was common to see campesinos making the long trek from Tirani with a huge weight of flowers tied to their backs. Like beasts of burden, they were doubled over all the way to town.
The health workers explain that the Quechua Indians in Tirani have not seen a priest in a decade, so they ask me to celebrate the Mass in Spanish, and one of the workers would preach in Quechua. (Everyone there speaks Quechua, with only the men able to defend themselves in Spanish.) The workers pick me up at the bottom of the hill at one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. I hop into the back of the open-air truck with the others, and we climb to the top of the mountain. Midtrek, I decide to do an inventory of the contents of my backpack. I have brought everything I need but a missalette. I have not the words. At this point in my early priesthood, I couldn’t wing Mass in English. The thought of doing so in Spanish was preposterous. I do have a Spanish Bible, so I frantically flip through the pages, trying to find any passages that sound like the words of consecration. “Take this and eat.”
I locate any part of the New Testament that has Jesus kicking it at a table and eating. Soon, my body is introducing me to the marvels of flop sweat—and I haven’t even arrived at Tirani yet. I am red in the face and stingy hot.
We pull into a huge, open-air landing, a field cleared of all crops, and many hundreds of Quechua Indians have gathered and set themselves down around this table, our altar. I hobble and fake my way through the liturgy of the Word, aided by the health workers, who read everything in Quechua. After the gentleman preaches, it is my turn to carry the ball. I’m like someone who’s been in a major car accident. I can’t remember a thing.
I know only that I have a crib sheet with some notes I have made, with stolen scriptural quotations, all the while lifting the bread and wine whenever I run out of things to say. It would be hard to imagine this Mass going worse.
When it is over, I am left spent and humiliated. I am wandering adrift, trying to gather my shattered self back together again, when a female health worker walks an ancient Quechua woman up to me.
“She hasn’t gone to confession in ten years.”
She leaves her with me, and the viejita unloads a decade’s worth of sins in a singsongy and rapid-fire Quechua. I just nod like a menso waiting for a pause that might indicate she’s finished. The woman’s got some pulmones on her and doesn’t seem to need to take a breath. She goes on for about a half hour. Finally she does stop, and I manage to communicate some penance and give her my memorized absolution. She walks away, and I turn to discover that I have been abandoned. The field where we celebrated Mass has been vacated. Inexplicably, even the truck and the health workers are gone. I am alone at the top of this mountain, stuck, not only without a ride, but in stultifying humiliation. I am convinced that a worse priest has never visited this place or walked this earth.
With my backpack snug on my shoulder and spirit deflated, I begin to make the long walk down the mountain and back to town. But before I leave the makeshift soccer field that had been our cathedral, an old Quechua campesino, seemingly out of nowhere, makes his way to me. He appears ancient, but I suspect his body has been weathered by work and the burden of an Indian’s life. As he nears me, I see he is wearing tethered wool pants, with a white buttoned shirt, greatly frayed at the collar. He has a rope for a belt. His suit coat is coarse and worn. He has a fedora, toughened by the years. He is wearing huaraches, and his feet are caked with Bolivian mud. Any place that a human face can have wrinkles and creases, he has them. He is at least a foot shorter than I am, and he stands right in front of me and says, “Tatai.”
This is Quechua for Padrecito, a word packed with cariño, affection, and a charming intimacy. He looks up at me, with penetrating, weary eyes and says, “Tatai, gracias por haber venido” (Thanks for coming).
I think of something to say, but nothing comes to me. Which is just as well, because before I can speak, the old campesino reaches into the pockets of his suit coat and retrieves two fistfuls of multicolored rose petals. He’s on the tips of his toes and gestures that I might assist with the inclination of my head. And so he drops the petals over my head, and I’m without words. He digs into his pockets again and manages two more fistfuls of petals. He does this again and again, and the store of red, pink, and yellow rose petals seems infinite. I just stand there and let him do this, staring at my own huaraches, now moistened with my tears, covered with rose petals. Finally, he takes his leave and I’m left there, alone, with only the bright aroma of roses.
For all the many times I would return to Tirani and see the same villagers, over and over, I never saw this old campesino again.
God, I guess, is more expansive than every image we think rhymes with God. How much greater is the God we have than the one we think we have. More than anything else, the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval. This joy just doesn’t know what we’re talking about when we focus on the restriction of not measuring up. This joy, God’s joy, is like a bunch of women lined up in the parish hall on your birthday, wanting only to dance with you—cheek to cheek. “First things, recognizably first,” as Daniel Berrigan says. The God, who is greater than God, has only one thing on Her mind, and that is to drop, endlessly, rose petals on our heads. Behold the One who can’t take His eyes off of you.
Marinate in the vastness of that.
Free Press; 60840th edition (February 22, 2011)
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