Tattoos on the Heart: Part 5 in a series on JustFaith

By Stephanie Block

Over the course of weeks five through seven, JustFaith participants read and discuss the book Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle. Father Boyle is a Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.

“Homeboy Industries, which Boyle calls the United Nations of gangs,[i] serves as an employment agency, counseling center and tattoo-removal service, as well as in various other social service capacities.”[ii] It’s a non-profit organization of several businesses, including Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise, Homeboy Diner, Homeboy Farmers Markets and Homegirl Café, created to provide training and work experience for gang members – sometimes from rival gangs, working side by side. In fact, the most remarkable aspect of Father Boyle’s efforts is his preaching “God’s call to peace” in this battle-weary neighborhood.[iii]

Tattoos on the Heart describes this effort in poignant – and sweet – vignettes. There’s no question this is good work. …and, in terms of good work, Father’s Dolores Mission –from which Homeboy Industries was started – certainly sounds like one of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s better grantees and therefore an excellent model for the student of social justice to examine…except…except that Dolores Mission is also a center for liberation theology, using its work among the poor to spread an alternative way of “being church.”

Fr. Thomas Rausch, SJ, writes that “…the worship of the community [of Dolores Mission] and the strong influence of liberation theology themes clearly drive its many involvements. Music is simple but strong, with lyrics projected on an old movie screen. An emphasis on praxis is evident in the preaching. Only part of the assembly receives communion; the heart of Dolores Mission is its call to empowerment in response the community’s daily experience of poverty and injustice.”[iv]

Dolores Mission has a coordinator for the dozen or more base communities it hosts and through which its ministries are run. Sister Giulii Zobelein, OP, Director of Religious Education at Dolores Mission writes that the “small Christian communities” are the life blood of Dolores Mission. She says: “They are modeled on groups that began in poor areas in Latin America. They meet weekly in homes, reflecting on the Sunday Gospel and how it applies to their lives. It is from these groups that action for peace and justice springs.”[v]

The action for peace and justice to which Sister refers has included agitating protests of proposed laws to criminalize illegal immigration, claiming – erroneously – that such legislation would slap felony charges against doctors, teachers, social workers and ministers who aid undocumented immigrants. [vi]

Father Boyle began working with Christian Base Communities in Cochabamba, Bolivia.[vii] In Tatoos, he tells an anecdote about his time in Bolivia and concludes: “God, I guess, is more expansive than every image we think rhymes with God…the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval…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.”

The anecdote would have been compelling had it been left to speak for itself. The story is so touching, in fact, one is tempted to accept Father’s conclusions without analysis. However, framing it with a subtle liberationist challenge to the reader’s relationship to God accomplishes, ironically enough, the very problem Father Boyle has sought to escape – a diminished and falsified image of the Divine. Is God, who truly is more expansive than we imagine, nothing more than self-affirmation? Is God, more expansive than we imagine, therefore properly referred to as “Her?”

Not much is made of these positions. They are dropped – like rose petals on our heads – softly, to work at the limen of consciousness.

It is so soft, one might be tempted to ask what difference it makes when Father brings so much good into the neighborhood? That question is outside the scope of this critique. What is within its scope, however, is how the JustFaith program handles these elements.

Week Five: So, for example, the first discussion of Tattoos, beginning in week 5, suggests facilitators ask participants to describe the emotions they felt reading the book (question 1).

Questions 3 and 4 then hone in on the liberationist twist. “At the start of Chapter 1, the author writes ‘This is a chapter on God, I guess. The truth be told, the whole book is.’” This sparks a discussion followed by the next question: “Boyle states, ‘When the vastness of God meets the restrictions of our own humanity, words can’t hold it.’[viii] He later states, ‘More than anything else, the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval. This joy doesn’t know what we’re talking about when we focus on the restriction of not measuring up.’[ix] When have you felt like you did not measure up? Who in your community/ the nation/the world is judged as not measuring up? How do these restrictions limit our joy and theirs?”

There’s no question that participants of the JustFaith program are meant to absorb this point.

One must emphasize again that Father Boyle’s work is astonishingly good: “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories,” he writes, “it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.”[x]

The effort to help the reader (or JustFaith participant “stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it”[xi] is laudable. Love covers a multitude of sins and, as uncommonly generous and talented at helping inner city gangbangers as Father Boyle is, it is clear that his love is genuine and profound.

However, the JustFaith program goes beyond holding Father’s work up for emulation and reaches into his thought, some of which is distorted. Those distortions then become part of the philosophical framework which, considered as a whole, is being used to reeducate Catholics away from Catholic spirituality and into…something else.

Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the editor of the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper and a founder of the Catholic Media Coalition.


[i] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion (Free Press, 2010), p. 9.

[ii] Valerie Weaver-Zercher, “Review of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” The Christian Century, 5-4-10.

[iii] Elizabeth Venant, “A Father's Love : Despite opposition from police and parishioners, Father Gregory Boyle is striving to end gang violence by bombarding young people with love,” LA Times, 2-20-90.

[iv] Fr. Thomas Rausch, SJ, “Liturgy and Evangelization in the North American Context,” paper delivered at the 2001 Catholic Theological Society of America meeting.


[vi] Ellie Hidalgo, “Catholics fast to urge just immigration laws,” Catholic News Service, 2/16/2006.


[viii] Tattoos…p 35.

[ix] Tattoos…pp 38-39.

[x] Tattoos…preface.

[xi] Tattoos… p 67.

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