Barking to the Choir by the American Jesuit Fr Gregory Boyle is a celebration of the ‘radical kinship’ animating life at Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles gang-intervention ministry he founded 30 years ago this year.
In his bestselling Tattoos on the Heart, Boyle called on us to imagine, with God, a widening circle of compassion. In repeating the exercise, the author again shares his gift: a way to see and behold every person as loved beyond measure.
Boyle tells provocative stories from the lives of people who have survived both violence and trauma. He introduces us to women and men who enrich his life. He shares truths that emerge from these relationships, and illustrates each one with an experience. He will often repeat a line from a given story later on, inviting the reader to savour more deeply what it reveals.
For example, Sergio gives a talk to 600 social workers. He describes wearing three t-shirts through elementary school to hide the blood from daily beatings he received at the hands of his mother.
‘I wore three T-shirts … well into my adult years, cuz I was ashamed of my wounds … But now I welcome my wounds’, he says. ‘I run my fingers over my scars. My wounds are my friends. After all … how can I help others to heal if I don’t welcome my own wounds.’
Boyle repeats a line from the Acts of the Apostles he had shared earlier: ‘And awe came on everyone.’
Wounded people join gangs ‘when they have realised their life is a misery’, writes Boyle. When they encounter Homeboy Industries, however, they find a place where they can begin to rework their life’s narrative.
Each person receives opportunities to work and heal. They now belong to a community of kinship where their essential dignity is affirmed, perhaps for the first time. ‘How else, except through connection, can people be reminded of their goodness?’ asks Boyle.
For Boyle, gang membership signals ‘a lethal absence of hope’. Indeed, when Boyle is called into court as a gang expert in death penalty cases, he will say ‘Well, gosh, imagine how bleak and dark one’s despair would have to be to do such a thing … imagine how damaged and traumatised you’d have to be to do something so awful.’
In so doing, Boyle calls out demonisation as a human tool for throwing people away. Its antidote is to build an ‘irresistible culture of tenderness’. This new culture embodies a spacious imagination such that God might recognise it.
So this is a book which provides a vision where each life holds possibility, and where together we can live our way into hope. We identify with each person as they rediscover their place in the human family.
We seek to imitate this community of people transforming trauma through tenderness. We begin to recognise the truth: redemption has a human face.
James O’Brien is Editorial Assistant — Prayer and Spirituality at Jesuit Communications.