In Tattoos on the Heart, Father Gregory Boyle devotes a lot of time to outlining the principles that have guided him across his long career. The most important of those principles is kinship. Simply defined, kinship is the state of being intimately connected to other people—of loving them and being unconditionally loyal to them. Boyle tries to show kinship throughout the book to set an example for others, mainly through welcoming anyone into his church, including (and especially) gang members, and for providing classes for young gang members who’ve been kicked out of school. He’s also the founder of Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit that provides employment, psychiatric counseling, tattoo removal, and other valuable services for former members of Los Angeles gangs. Over the course of the book, Boyle unpacks the term “kinship” and shows why it’s been so important to his work as a priest, a community organizer, and a nonprofit founder.
From the beginning, Boyle emphasizes that kinship is an “all or none feeling.” In other words, kinship means having respect, compassion, and love for all human beings—not just friends, family, or people of the same nationality or culture. Boyle argues that people instinctively want to help others—not because these others share their tastes or background, but simply because they’re people. However, in modern society, the feeling of kinship is constantly under attack. People are encouraged to associate with people who are like them, resulting in a narrower form of “appreciation” for others, rather than the universal, open-hearted sense of kinship.
In the housing projects of Los Angeles, Boyle sees a particularly deadly form of assault on kinship: gang culture. Gangs only associate with other members of their gang, and they’re sworn to fight their rivals. In many ways, Boyle sees it as his true mission to spread kinship to the residents of Los Angeles, breaking down the barriers of gang culture and economic segregation. By hiring any former gang member at Homeboy Industries, Boyle creates an environment in which former rivals have to work together and get along. Using his enormous charisma and talent for moral education, Boyle inspires his employees and students to transcend their hatred. Throughout the book, Boyle provides moving examples of members of rival gangs becoming fast friends, or becoming kind, loving fathers as a consequence of Boyle’s unconditional support. Boyle’s emphasis on universal kinship inspires some ex-gang members to spend their lives treating other people with kindness and respect. This suggests that kinship can be like a virus, spreading from person to person at an exponential rate.
Boyle adds two important qualifying points about kinship. First, Boyle makes it clear that kinship doesn’t mean erasing all differences between oneself and other people. Throughout the book, Boyle makes it clear that he disagrees with some of his gang member employees, or even finds them annoying at times. The beauty of kinship, however, is that it enables people to respect and get along with people who they don’t see eye-to-eye with, or even particularly like. Second, there’s a difference between kinship and helping other people. Helping others is admirable, but kinship is a more spiritual and personal way of relating to other people. To clarify this distinction, Boyle cites the example of Jesus Christ, who lived alongside the poor and suffering without always trying to improve their lives in any material way. Jesus offered his followers something different—and, in Boyle’s view, more valuable—than material help. He gave them a sense of universal, unconditional compassion by sharing their lives without judging them or treating them like a problem to be fixed. Boyle has been criticized for prioritizing kinship over bettering people’s lives in measurable, material ways (such as giving them money or food). While Boyle has bettered people’s lives by giving them stable jobs and, in some cases, successful careers, he insists that these forms of “success” are less important than fostering a sense of kinship in the community.
Kinship Quotes in Tattoos on the Heart
Homeboy Industries can only hire and help a finite number of gang members. Though thousands have found assistance, it remains a tiny drop in a pretty deep bucket. In the city of Los Angeles, Homeboy Industries has operated as a symbol as much as a place of concrete help. For more than twenty years, it has asked this city "What if we were to invest in gang members, rather than just seek to incarcerate our way out of this problem?"
"Damn, G," he shakes his head, "What's up with white people anyway?"
I was actually curious as to what was up with us.
"I don't know what is up with us?"
"I mean, damn," he says, "They always be using the word GREAT.'"
Our image of who God is and what's on God's mind is more tiny than it is troubled. It trips more on our puny sense of God than over conflicting creedal statements or theological considerations.
There is a longing in us all to be God-enthralled. So enthralled that to those hunkered down in their disgrace, in the shadow of death, we become transparent messengers of God's own tender mercy. We want to be seized by that same tenderness; we want to bear the largeness of God.
All throughout Scripture and history, the principal suffering of the poor is not that they can't pay their rent on time or that they are three dollars short of a package of Pampers. […] The principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame—a global sense of failure of the whole self.
To love the enemy and to find some spaciousness for the victimizer, as well as the victim, resembles more the expansive compassion of God. That's why you do it.
"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 she poises herself on the edge of the couch, practically ready to leap to her feet. "Then we shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church."
"Damn, G, seventy-five?" He shakes his head in disbelief, his voice a bare hush now. "I mean, damn . . . when's it gonna end?"
I reach down to Omar and go to shake his hand. We connect and I pull him to his feet. I hold his hand with both of mine and zero in on his eyes.
"Mijo, it will end," I say, "the minute . . . you decide."
"Tonight, you taught me that no amount of my wanting you to have a life is the same as you wanting to have one. Now, I can help you get a life—I just can’t give you the desire to want one. So, when you want a life, call me."
And I walk away more than a little discouraged. I contemplate a career change—crossing guard perhaps.
Some months later, Leo did call me.
"It's time already," he says. I knew exactly what that meant.
"Oh, come on now G, you know," he says, spinning his hand in a circular motion, "You're in my . . . jurisdiction."
I can’t be entirely sure what Junior meant. Except for the fact that we all need to see that we are in each other's "jurisdictions," spheres of acceptance—only, all the time. And yet, there are lines that get drawn, and barriers erected, meant only to exclude.
We seek to create loving communities of kinship precisely to counteract mounting lovelessness, racism, and the cultural disparagement that keeps us apart.
Maybe there are eight of us or so when the meal finally gets served. Plenty to go around and just as tasty as it could be. Everyone brought his flavor to this forbidden pot of iguana stew and keeping anyone away and excluded was unthinkable to this band of prisoners. Alone, they didn't have much, but together, they had a potful of plenty.
Are you, in the end, successful? Naturally, I find myself heartened by Mother Teresa's take: "We are not called to be successful, but faithful." This distinction is helpful for me as I barricade myself against the daily dread of setback.
The Left was equally annoyed. They wanted to see the ten-point plan, the revolution in high gear, the toppling of sinful social structures. They were impatient with His brand of solidarity. They wanted to see Him taking the right stand on issues, not just standing in the right place.
But Jesus just stood with the outcast. The Left screamed: "Don't just stand there, do something."
“As I saw this kid,” she tells me, “I just kept thinking of what my friends might say if they were here with me. They'd say, ‘Pray that he dies.’” But she just looked at this tiny kid, struggling to sidestep the fate of her sons, as the doctors work and scream ...WE'RE LOSING HIM. WE'RE LOSING HIM."
Bandit hangs back. "Can I tell you something, dog?" I ask, standing in the parking lot. "I give you credit for the man you've chosen to become. I'm proud of you."
"Sabes qué?" he says, eyes watering, "I'm proud of myself. All my life, people called me a lowlife, a bueno para nada. I guess I showed 'em."
"For the first time in the history of this country three gang members walked into the White House. We had dinner there . . . I told her the food tasted nasty."
He pauses and gets still. And she cried.
I get still myself.
Well, mijo, whaddya 'spect? She just caught a glimpse of ya. She saw that you are somebody. She recognized you . . . as the shape of God's heart. Sometimes people cry when they see that.
But who wouldn't be proud to claim Chico as their own?
His soul feeling its worth before its leaving.
The mortician's incredulity reminds me that kinship remains elusive. Its absence asserts that any effort to help someone like Chico just might be a waste of our collective time.