Still Standing

The following is an excerpt from the audiobook version of Tattoos on the Heart: Stories of Boundless Compassion by Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, leader of Homeboy Industries. Boyle (referred to as “G”) has worked with gang members in LA for over 20 years. This excerpt was transcribed and abridged by yours truly, and is shared without permission. I hope Fr. Boyle will forgive me. I highly recommend that you purchase this audiobook for yourself. – Doe


People want me to tell them success stories. I understand this. They are the stories you want to tell, after all. So why does my scalp tighten when I am asked this? Surely part of it comes from my being utterly convinced I’m a fraud. I find Bill Cain’s reflection on the Shroud of Turin very consoling. He prefers frauds. He says, “If the shroud is a fraud, then it is this masterful work of art. If it’s the real thing, it’s just dirty laundry.”

Twenty years of this work has taught me that God has greater comfort with inverting categories than I do. What is success, and what is failure? What is good and what is bad? Setback or progress? Great stock these days, especially in non-profits (and who can blame them), is placed in evidence-based outcomes. People, funders in particular, want to know if what you do works. Are you, in the end, successful? Naturally, I find myself heartened by Mother Theresa’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. You need protection from the daily ebb and flow of three steps forward, five steps backward. You trip over disappointment and recalcitrance every day, and it all becomes a muddle. God intends it to be, I think. For once you choose to hang out with folks who carry more burden than they can bear, all bets seem to be off. Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful, keeps you from truly seeing whoever is sitting in front of you. Embracing a strategy and an approach you can believe in is sometimes the best you can do on any given day. If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success becomes God’s business. I find it hard enough to just be faithful.

[Story of Scrappy’s death: Scrappy was an extremely aggressive and uncompromising gang member who pulled a gun on Fr. Boyle on one occasion. But finally, he admitted he regretted the reputation he had spent 20 years building, and wanted a new life. Fr. Boyle gave him a job on a graffiti removal team. Soon after, Scrappy was found dead from a clean, execution-style shot to the head. No one knows exactly what happened, but Fr. Boyle speculates…]

Maybe something caught up with Scrappy. Maybe his past, maybe his recent present. Perhaps the prospect of leading a life devoid of reputation, by the rules, and by the slow pace of the right thing, was more terrifying than exhilarating for Scrappy… Quite apart from the tragic blow of Scrappy’s death for all of us who loved him, was the heartbreaking fact that he missed his chance to live in another way. Like a child, thrilled but terrified by his first swim in the ocean—floating, carried, restful, because he was moving in a completely different way—perhaps the new scene, its strangeness, its immensity, had scared him back into the life he knew.

Was he a success story? Does he now appear in some column of failure as we tally up outcomes? The tyranny of success often can’t be bothered with complexity. The toke board matters little when held up alongside Scrappy’s intricate, tragic struggle to figure out who he was in the world.

[Story of Raul’s death: another gang member who gave up his old life, but was shot while on the clock for Homeboy Industries.]

[Story of Victor’s death, after which Fr. Boyle was comforted by an infamously surly gang member with a violent temper. On this occasion, the man sobs with G in his office, expressing his wish that he could “swoop [G] up” and out of his pain.]

Sister Elaine Roulette, founder of My Mother’s House in New York, was asked, “How do you work with the poor?”

She answered, “You don’t. You share your life with the poor.” It’s as basic as crying together. It’s about casting your lot before it ever becomes about changing their lot. Success and failure ultimately have little to do with living the Gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed, or until he was crucified, whichever came first.

The American poet Jack Gilbert writes, “The pregnant heart is driven to hopes that are the wrong size for this world.” The strategy and stance of Jesus was consistent in that it was always out of step with the world. Jesus defied all the categories upon which the world insisted: good/evil, success/failure, pure/impure. Surely, he was an equal opportunity pisser-offer in this regard. The Right wing would stare at him and question where he chose to stand. They hated that he aligned himself with the unclean, those outside, those folks you ought neither to touch nor be near. He hob-knobbed with the leper, shared table fellowship with the sinner, and rendered himself ritually impure in the process. They found it offensive that, to boot, Jesus had no regard for their wedge issues, their constitutional amendments, or their culture wars.

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 the 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!” And the Right maintained, “Don’t stand with those folks at all!” Both sides, seeing Jesus the wrong size for this world, came to their own reasons for wanting him dead. Both sides were equally impressed as he unrolled the scroll and spoke of good news to the poor, sight to the blind, liberty to captives. Yet only a handful of verses later, they wanted to throw Jesus over a cliff.

How do we get the world to change, anyway? Dorothy Day asked, critically, “Where were the saints to try and change the social order? Not just minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” Dorothy Day is a hero of mine, but I disagree with her here. You actually abolish slavery by accompanying the slave. We don’t strategize our way out of slavery, we solidarize, if you will, our way toward its demise. We stand in solidarity with the slave, and by so doing, we diminish slavery’s ability to stand. By casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing. All Jesus asks is, “Where are you standing?” And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, he asks again, “Are you still standing there?”

Can we stay faithful, and persistent in our fidelity, even when things seem not to succeed? I suppose Jesus could have chosen a strategy that worked better (“evidence-based outcomes”) that didn’t end in the cross. But he couldn’t find a strategy more soaked with fidelity than the one he embraced.


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