Tattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle, is a novel that tells the author’s experiences with attempting to better lives of gang members. Throughout the story, readers can see two important facts of the book: Father Boyle is trying to teach gang members how to change themselves to pursue a better future, and that these people do have a desire to succeed and escape the gang life. While reading the stories of these gang members that Father Boyle has worked with people can easily forget that they come from the toughest neighborhoods. These gangs lived violent and antisocial lives, including shooting and killing others, and at the time Father Boyle tells their stories, most have spent a large portion they have spent most of their lives behind bars. Father Boyle sees beyond their experiences and reminds both them and readers that we are all deserving of God’s love, even if we had failed in some portion of our lives earlier.
In Tattoos on the Heart, Father Boyle shares many of these lessons to us to understand it is not about solving the association of gangs, guns, and poverty; it is about the call to acknowledge outcasts and the poor and help them as much as possible, a reflection of Father Boyle’s faith in the Principles of the Catholic Social Justice such as Solidarity and the Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable. Throughout reading this novel, the principle of Solidarity is demonstrated by Father Boyle’s partnership with the gang members. Father Boyle states that we are not separated from the outsiders (the gang members) and that it is our responsibility as a society to acknowledge and help the oppressed, and in so doing we help them while satisfying some of our own needs. In Chapter 3, Father Boyle tells of an incident when someone spray painted “Wetback Church” on the front steps. He wanted to scrub off this statement off the building until Petra Saldana, a member of the group, objects.
She says to Boyle, “You will not clean this up. If there are people in our community who are disparaged and hated and left out because they are mojados (wetbacks)… Then we shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church.” Boyle was able to recognize that Petra is right. It is better to accept insults from others than it is to push back against them. In studying tenets of the Catholic faith, the Church teaches that Jesus also did not care about the judgments of others when he helped those who were oppressed in society. Father Boyle uses the example of how “He was one with others.” (Boyle 72) and that Jesus “….was the outcast….” Petra followed what Jesus would do by showing kingship and her willingness to live in the lives of others. In telling this story, Father Boyle demonstrates the importance of solidarity; we as people need to be able to imagine the lives that are not ours without judging the merit or lack of it in those lives.
The Catholic principle of the Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable can also be seen in Father Boyle’s demonstration of how Jesus helped those who are both vulnerable and unable to take care of themselves. In Chapter 3, Father Boyle asked what the Church smelled like. People complained that it smelled like feet because too many homeless men sleep at the church. He asks why they allow this to happen and a parishioner responds “Es nuestro compromiso.” (“It’s what we’ve committed to do.”) Next, Boyle asks why are they committed to doing that. Another person in the church answers Boyle, “Porque es lo que haria Jesus.” (“It is what Jesus would do.”) Father Boyle’s point is that the parishioners want to let those who are outside in to can seek comfort and warmth. A man then stands up in the Church to comment, “Huele a nuestro compromise” (“It smells like commitment.”) The end result is that the people in that Church dismantle the barriers that exclude the outsiders. These parishioners follow this Catholic principle by assuming the responsibility to take care of people less fortunate.
Another example of this principle can be seen in Chapter 8, where Father Boyle argues that many people believe they have a duty to improve the lives of the poor. Father Boyle disagrees, replacing that thought by quoting a statement made by Sr. Elaine Roulette, “You don’t. You share your life with poor….It is about ‘casting your lot’ before it ever becomes about ‘changing their lot.’” Father Boyle demonstrated here that he has thought deeply about how Jesus had acted toward the lives of the poor. Jesus had spent a lot of his time with the less fortunate, but he did not offer them what Boyle called a “ten point plan” on how to improve their lives. Father Boyle saw Jesus “… as an equal pisser off-er….” in this type of situation. (Boyle 172) He emphasizes that Jesus had annoyed both the left and right side by associating with them, and yet not trying to improve them in any material way. While it is important to provide the poor with things such as clothes to wear, food to eat, water to drink and shelter to keep for warmth, Boyle states that it is more important to treat them with love and compassion.
Outcasts are the portion of any society that represents those who are rejected, unable to keep a job, and, therefore, seemingly unworthy of respect. Father Boyle takes a far different perspective: he is clear that being an outcast is nothing of which to be ashamed. Father Boyle’s experiences and teachings prove his own devotion to outcasts, but most important his attitudes show readers how God’s love reminds us all that we are deserving of His love (despite our failings). By treating the gang members with kindness, he hopes to change both that portion of society and set an example to the rest of the world one day to follow. Father Boyle asks of us to recognize our outcasts as worthy of respect and compassion, even if the majority do not feel any kinship toward them.