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'Tattoos on the heart'

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Father Boyle entered the Jesuits in 1972, and his ministry eventually took him to a parish in East Los Angeles rife with gang activity and violence. He buried large numbers of young people and saw the pain of family crisis.

Effie
Caldarola

The other day, I climbed out of bed a little before 4 a.m. to head to the Philadelphia airport.

My kids live in three different time zones from one another and from my husband and me, and we'd just had a short reunion to celebrate the second birthday of the person who represents our family's next generation, Charlotte.

Now, time for us to fan out across the country.

Forgoing morning showers or even a cup of coffee, four of us quietly left Charlotte's house in the darkness, dropping off a car rental, finding different airlines, different gates, hugging goodbye as each traveler peeled off.

I recognized again that the pain of separation underscores the blessing of being loved.

Arriving home, I revived myself with a short nap. No matter how tired I was, I didn't want to miss an address that evening at Creighton University. Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, the author of "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion" and the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, was speaking at our local Jesuit university.

Father Boyle entered the Jesuits in 1972, and his ministry eventually took him to a parish in East Los Angeles rife with gang activity and violence. He buried large numbers of young people and saw the pain of family crisis.

Some would find the experience deadening and debilitating. With the Jesuit grace of seeing God in all things, Father Boyle saw challenge and possibility.

No one wants to lead the life of misery that gang involvement produces, Father Boyle realized. That's not the life anyone would choose if given a viable alternative.

Homeboy Bakery was his first endeavor, training and employing former gang members who often worked side by side with partisans from rival gangs. Eventually, the bakery set the groundwork for Homeboy Industries, which today employs and trains former gang members in a variety of enterprises. Homeboy Industries website says 15,000 men and women are provided services each year.

Father Boyle talks about his experience with gang members much like he writes, with humor and touching insight. Jesuits write great books -- Father James Martin, Father Gary Smith, to name just two -- but it's hard to beat Father Boyle. Good news: He's working on another one.

It was on another airplane trip years ago that I encountered "Tattoos on the Heart." Reading Father Boyle's tale about gang members, the people he has buried, love's ability to redeem, had me chortling and sobbing by turns. I'm sure my fellow passengers thought they'd been seated next to a crazy lady.

The Creighton crowd was heavy with students. If you go to a Jesuit university in the U.S., you've likely been assigned "Tattoos" in some class at some point, and many kids had their books with them to be autographed.

Father Boyle told the crowd about recent funerals. No project serving the marginalized is going to be successful all the time. If we're caught up in measurements of "success," we often forget true mission.

Addressing his young audience, Father Boyle told them several times that Creighton is not a place to be but a place you will go from. He was telling the students -- and all of us -- that we are called, we're sent, to be the boundless compassion that can change lives.

I sent a copy of Father Boyle's book to one of the people to whom I'd said goodbye at the Philadelphia airport. It's a tale that bridges separation. It's a story of maintaining humor, faith and compassion in life's darkest moments. It's a story that goes beyond the mean streets of East L.A. It's a story of the best of being Catholic.

Effie Caldarola is a columnist with the Catholic News Service.

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