In 1993, Boyle teaches a course on “Theological Issues in American Short Fiction” in Folsom Prison. At one point, he asks his students to define the word “compassion.” To his surprise, nobody speaks up. But then, someone says, “Compassion … is … God.” Boyle completely agrees with this definition: compassion is a total, unflinching love for other people, of the kind modeled by Jesus Christ during his time on the earth.
Boyle echoes the point he made in Chapter One: God is a being of boundless, unqualified compassion. However, Boyle elaborates on this point by discussing Christ’s example. Christianity emphasizes that Jesus Christ was a man: he embodied and lived out God’s boundless compassion, acting as a model for other mortals.
In the early days of Homeboy Industries, Boyle spends a lot of time with a twelve-year-old kid named Betito. Betito is smart and funny, and although he’s raised speaking Spanish, he learns English quickly. One evening, Betito is playing with his cousin when suddenly gang members open fire at a rival group. A bullet hits him, and he dies in the hospital.
Boyle’s long tenure in the Dolores Mission Church is filled with unspeakable tragedies like the death of Betito. The constant violence likely makes Boyle’s commitment to boundless compassion more difficult and more important.
Boyle often thinks about Betito. He finds it hard not to hate the two men who opened fire that Sunday, leading directly to Betito’s death. But having compassion for everyone, even sinners, is an important part of being a Christian. Part of having compassion means understanding what unfortunate people have to carry, “rather than stand[ing] in judgment at how they carry it.”
In this passage, Boyle engages in one of the quintessential Christian moral acts: forgiveness. Even though Boyle is understandably furious over the death of Betito, he has the moral strength to recognize that Betito’s killers are flawed human beings who are victims as well as victimizers. Instead of judging the two killers, Boyle recognizes their imperfections and forgives their sins.
Boyle remembers a teenager named Looney, who belongs to a local gang. Boyle meets with Looney just after Looney’s gotten out of juvenile detention. Everyone in the parish is delighted with Looney’s return—so much so that Looney can hardly believe it. Looney asks to speak to Boyle privately. He reveals that he got decent grades in prison, and Boyle congratulates him. Looney begins to weep, overcome with Boyle’s praise. He admits, “I just want to have a life.”
One of the common themes of Boyle’s anecdotes is the desire to lead a good, happy life. Looney has lived a hard, miserable life, but he wants to “have a life.” Boyle appeals to this desire in many gang members by giving them good, meaningful jobs through Homeboy Industries.
One reason sinners continue to sin is that they feel like outcasts. Jesus refused to treat sinners like outcasts—instead, he sat down and ate with them. In the same spirit, Boyle sits down and eats pizza with Looney, giving him the love he needs to thrive.
Boyle refuses to treat gang members and ex-convicts as inferior to him in any way. As he brought up at the beginning of this chapter, Boyle emulates the life of Jesus by treating all people with love and respect.
Dolores Church has been a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants since 1987. At various times, this has proven controversial. One day, Boyle finds that someone has spray-painted “Wetback Church” outside his building. His first instinct is to have the cruel message removed. But one of his parishioners, a woman named Petra Saldana, says, “You will not clean that up … We shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church.” Boyle realizes that Petra is right. Christ was proud to help outcasts, and he endured people’s insults for doing so.
Boyle recognizes that it is better to accept other people’s insults than to push back against them. (In a similar vein, Christ taught that people should “turn the other cheek”). This is actually a common rhetorical and political tactic: accepting an opponent’s insult and using it against the opponent.
One day soon after, a former member of the community drives by the Dolores Church and chats with Boyle. He’s a little surprised to see that the church is full of addicts, gang members, and other social outcasts. He mutters, “This used to be a church,” to which Boyle replies, “It’s finally a church.” The beauty of compassion, Boyle concludes, lies in the fact that it allows people to come together with those who are unlike them.
Boyle is wholly committed to the Christian ideal of inclusiveness. Just as Jesus Christ associated with thieves, prostitutes and other social outcasts, Boyle opens the doors of his church to gang members, ex-convicts, and other people who’ve been cast out of Los Angeles society. Importantly, Boyle doesn’t care if this decision alienates people who are prejudiced against the outcasts he welcomes.
Boyle meets a teenager named Anthony, whose parents are in prison and who sells drugs to support himself. Boyle takes in Anthony at his church, and learns that Anthony wants to be a mechanic. Boyle convinces Dennis, his mechanic friend, to hire Anthony and train him. Slowly, Anthony learns the trade, and also begins to gain confidence in himself.
Boyle doesn’t just give his congregants emotional support; he provides them with a practical, material path to success.
Boyle delivers a talk at the University of Montana, along with two adults, Matteo and Julian, who spent much of their childhoods at his parish. Matteo and Julian speak movingly about their experiences growing up around Boyle, and Matteo tearfully tells Boyle, “I love you so fucking much,” making Boyle weep. Afterwards, Matteo reads a story in the local paper, praising him for his moving speech. He admits that the story makes him feel like “somebody.” “That’s because you are somebody,” Boyle says.
Unlike some humanitarians, Boyle doesn’t treat his awards as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Instead, he uses award ceremonies as a further way of celebrating his employees and congregants. By bringing Matteo into the University of Montana, Boyle makes Matteo feel accepted and respected in a way that Matteo hasn’t felt before.
Boyle officiated his first wedding in Bolivia. The couple was Quechua, and they refused to take communion, despite Boyle’s encouragement. It occurs to Boyle that the Quechua have always turned down communion—in doing so, they’ve chosen to be “outside” of communion, and Christianity, forever. Perhaps the feeling of outsiderness is “the opposite of God.”
Boyle believes that people should love one another—ideas that people from a wide range of religious backgrounds would be likely to support. However, Boyle also subscribes to a specific set of religious beliefs and rituals, such as Holy Communion (and, furthermore, he seems to believe that people who don't subscribe to these beliefs and rituals are against God). This makes Boyle’s moral convictions harder for non-Christians (or Catholics) to accept.
Boyle goes on a three-state speaking tour with two of his former students, Memo and Miguel. The three men visit some of the poorest parts of the country in Pritchard, Alabama. On the visit, Memo is especially struck by the poverty he sees, and begins to weep. He confesses to Boyle, “I feel compassion for what other people suffer.” With time, Boyle hopes, everyone will be able to feel this sense of compassion for people who are unlike them.
Memo’s compassion for the people of Alabama reflects Boyle’s own confidence in the power of compassion. Boyle has treated Memo with unconditional love, and now Memo has “inherited” this emotional capability from Boyle.