A young man who wanted to leave a gang came to see Gregory Boyle, S.J., founder of Homeboy Industries – a gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in Los Angeles. The man had tattoos from head to toe, including a message on his forehead in large letters that said, “F… the World.”
“You know,” he said to Boyle, “I’m having a hard time finding a job.”
That brought laughter to Fr. Boyle’s audience at a recent presentation at Drake University. But the young man was deadly serious, indicating the difficulty of the transition from gang member to “normal” society.
Fr. Boyle’s presentation, entitled “The Spirituality of Compassion,” was mostly about his 30-year experiment in unreserved acceptance at Homeboy Industries. The non-profit offers a variety of services to former gang members, including counseling, help with addictions, tattoo removal, and classes on job seeking.
Staffed by Former Gang Members
It also offers jobs at its various enterprises, which includes a bakery, restaurants, electronics recycling and catering, all mostly staffed by former gang members. Homeboy has been widely publicized nationally, “recognized as the largest and most successful gang intervention and re-entry program in the world, and has become a national model,” according to its web site.
But what it offers goes far beyond tattoo removal and jobs, encompassing what for people searching for God may be the most difficult challenge of faith: showing compassion and loving people who are not like us.
“How do we obliterate the idea that there’s an ‘us’ and a ‘them?’” Boyle asked in his Drake presentation. “When everyone is drawing lines, we’re called to erase them.”
Tattoos cause us to draw lines, but so do race, physical appearance, disabilities, religious affiliation, economic status, past behavior and many other criteria whose use are obstacles to the search for God.
People searching for God may think of belief as their biggest challenge, but it may actually be acceptance of others, especially people on the margins of society. If you want to be successful in the search for God, you have to be God-like and to be God-like, you have to be accepting, compassionate and kind to all. And that’s not easy.
The idea of accepting many types of people shouldn’t make us squirm. For churchgoers, being accepting may mean that instead of praying for people “like us,” maybe we should be praying for gang members, pornographers, extortionists, swindlers, murderers, rapists and people who have done terrible things, as well as their victims.
Many of us simply ignore this advice, calling it unrealistic. But Jesus calls us to be “more than ourselves.” Think about the lepers of Jesus’ time. No one in respectable society, including religious leaders, wanted to have anything to do with them. With their open sores and wounds, they were considered repugnant. But, said Pope Francis in a homily a few years ago:
Restoring Everyone to God’s Family
“Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences. For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family. And this is scandalous to some people!
“Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal,” Francis continued. “He does not think of the close-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity.”
Boyle and the people who work with him have a lot in common with the pope, and with Jesus. If only more of us did!