06/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Where Gangs Once Ruled, Jesuit Priest Gregory Boyle Helps Kids Who Want To Trade Bullets For Jobs

One thing about today's most visible rich people: Even more than they love making money, they hate paying taxes. When the CEOs and the highly-paid pundits on television talk about the need to trim the federal budget and pay down the national debt, that's code. What they're really saying: People who have success in life deserve it, and the people who aren't successful have brought their poverty on themselves, so why should we care about them?

Hard-hearted? You have to go back to Dickens for harder.

So it was a joy to come upon Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion, a short (212 pages) book by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who lives in the very worst part of Los Angeles. In 1986, when he became pastor of Dolores Mission Church, the poorest in the diocese, the neighborhood was 25% African American. Now it's 99% Latino. More to the point, it's "the gang capitol of the world" -- since 1988, Boyle has buried 168 victims of gang violence.

In 1988, he opened a school; four years later, he launched Homeboy Industries. Gang members looking for a way out of the cycle of violence and death showed up; the center started a tattoo removal service so they could get jobs. Now Homeboy runs a bakery, a café, a mental health counseling service, and more.

"Got any disgruntled ex-employees?" a fire inspector asked when the bakery burned down in 1999.

"No," Boyle replied. "All the disgruntled ones still work for me."

What he did not need to add: "And I love them." These hardcore losers -- you'll look hard to find a politician who doesn't want them all in jail, just for breathing -- love him right back. He's "G" to them, a no-bullshit guy who greets them with hugs and tells them, as many times as it takes, that their lives have value.

This is what he believes:

God is compassionate, loving kindness. All we're asked to do is be in the world who God is. Certainly compassion was the wallpaper of Jesus' soul, the contour of his heart, it was who he was. I heard someone say once, "Just assume the answer to every question is compassion."

Granted, it's not easy for him: "Kids I love killing kids I love."

This is not a book of ideas, but a book of stories. There are bursts of wisdom: "In the soul of nearly every homie I know there's a hole that's in the shape of his dad." There is crazy laughter -- the account of Boyle taking three homies to dinner at the White House is a movie scene waiting to happen. And there's a lot triumph.

But let's not kid ourselves -- mostly, there's heartbreak. Over and over you meet kids, watch them flourish at Homeboy, and then, on the next page, they're dead. The very worst: a 16-year-old girl saying, "Promise me something, G -- that I get buried in this dress." Boyle starts to protest, but she cuts him off: "I just want to have a kid before I die."

You wonder how he keeps at it. In fact, he knows. The trick is to keep the goal firmly in mind: "a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it."

Toward the end, Boyle writes that "the wrong idea" has taken root in our world -- "the idea that there might be lives out there that matter less than other lives." Watch out for that idea, and you'll see how prevalent it is. Then read this book, and help root out the cancer that might be slipping into your soul.

[Cross-posted from]