CHARLOTTE — Parishioners and friends filled St. Peter Church one recent Saturday morning to hear from someone who has wholeheartedly answered the Church’s call to go to the margins of society to stand with the weak, the despised and those considered disposable.
Jesuit Father Greg Boyle has ministered in one of the most gang-infested areas in Los Angeles for three decades, founding Homeboy Industries to give thousands of young gang members job skills, a sense of self-worth and self-sufficiency, and a way out of the dehumanizing violence surrounding them. The author of “Tattoos on the Heart,” Father Boyle was the guest lecturer for the parish’s 2017 Kennedy Lecture Jan. 28.
“We stand at the margins and we brace ourselves, because people will accuse us of wasting our time,” he began, but the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that “the voice of joy and the voice of gladness” will be heard again in the land of waste.
“We stand at the margins because with God and Jesus, and the whole Church, we want to make those voices heard.”
First, he told the audience, we have to understand who God is, and what our relationship to Him is, before we can answer the call to love and serve our neighbor – “erasing those margins” between us.
“We’re endlessly creating God in our own image,” he said. “We’re human beings, we can’t help ourselves. This happens if we don’t graduate from our third-grade sense of who God is, and move into what St. Ignatius calls the ‘God who is always greater, the spacious expanse of God,’ the God who loves us without measure and without regret, the God who is too busy loving us to have any time left for anything else, the God that Jesus knew in His own mystical union with this tender, intimate close God.”
But, he said, “We have this notion that somehow we have to measure up and we are eternally disappointing Him. Somehow we have to get beyond that. Otherwise, we’re going to be unable to stand at the margins in the way that God hopes we will.”
As a loving parent, God “wants to be united to us, and who in fact doesn’t want anything from us. He only wants for us.”
Fortified by this loving, parent-child, covenant relationship with God, Father Boyle said, we are able to reach out in truth to others – not as service-provider and service-providee, but as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
“We don’t go to the margins to rescue anybody or save anybody, or to even make a difference,” he explained. “You go there because our whole life depends on it. This is how God has set this up.” When God tells us “so I have loved you,” He doesn’t ask us to love Him back – He asks us to love one another, especially with a preference toward the poor – widows, orphans and the stranger, he said.
God singles out these particular people among the poor “because He thinks they’re trustworthy to lead the rest of us to the kinship of God,” he said. “That’s my experience.”
Father Boyle recalled how an interviewer once asked him how it felt to have saved thousands of lives, and he replied: “Honest to God, I’m not trying to be coy or cute, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. I know that I show up every day and my life is absolutely altered.”
He continued, his voice cracking with emotion, “The homies rescue me every day from my cowardice and from my judgment. They rescue me and they return me to myself, and I’m deeply, profoundly grateful to them for the ways that they have saved me. That’s the truth.”
The truth is, he said, the poor are always treated with shame and disgrace. Part of serving to the poor involves reaching out to “dismantle that shame and disgrace,” he said, and relieve their burden.
Father Boyle peppered his talk with humorous, often poignant stories about the “homeboys” and “homegirls” he has shepherded out of gang life using the ultimate weapons the Church has in its arsenal: unconditional love and mercy.
He said he likes to bring one of the Homeboy Industries homies with him when he gives talks, so they can share their stories, he said. At one particular talk with a group of social service providers, his homie Jose accompanied him.
“Jose gets up – he’s about 25 at the time, gang member, tattooed, felon, in prison, parolee – but he had worked his way through our 18-month program and landed for a time as a very valued member of our substance abuse team, a man solid in his own recovery, and now he’s helping younger homies with their addiction issues. Been to prison and everything, but he also had a long stretch as a homeless man, and an even longer stretch as a heroin addict.
“He gets up in front of these 600 social workers and he says, ‘I guess you could say my mom and me didn’t get along so good. I think I was 6 when my mom looked at me and said, “Why don’t you just kill yourself? You’re such a burden to me.”’ Well, 600 social workers audibly gasped. And then he says, ‘It sounds way worser in Spanish.’ And we got whiplash going from gasp to laugh.
“He said, ‘I think I was 9 when my mom drove me down to the deepest part of Baja, California, and she walked me up to an orphanage. She knocked on the door, the guy came to the door and she said, “I found this kid.” And she left me there for 90 days, until my grandmother could get out of her where she had dumped me. My grandmother came and rescued me. My mom beat me every single day of my elementary school years – things you could imagine and a lot of things you couldn’t. Every day my back was bloodied and scarred. In fact, I had to wear three T-shirts to school every day – the first T-shirt because the blood would seep through, the second T-shirt because you could still see it, finally the third T-shirt you couldn’t see any blood. Kids at school would make fun of me: “Hey, fool, it’s 100 degrees. Why are you wearing three T-shirts?”’
“Then he stopped speaking, so overwhelmed with emotion, and he seemed to be staring at a piece of his story that only he could see. When he could regain his speech, he said through his tears, ‘I wore three T-shirts well into my adult years because I was ashamed of my wounds. I didn’t want anyone to see ’em. But now I welcome my wounds, I run my fingers over my scars. My wounds are my friends. After all, how can I help heal the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?’
“Awe came upon everyone,” Father Boyle recounted. “The measure of our compassion lies in not of our service of those on the margins, but only in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. For we are all crying for help, and if we don’t welcome our own wounds we will be tempted to despise the wounded.”
— Patricia L. Guilfoyle, editor