Rev. Gregory Boyle withholds one key detail when he begins to tell the story of a young man named Luis in the opening chapter of his New York Times best-seller, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.
A Jesuit priest who is recognized as a national leader in the field of gang intervention, Fr. Boyle delivered the 2014 St. Ambrose University Spring Commencement address on May 10 at the iWireless Center in Moline.
He also was presented an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, PhD, president of the university. A second honorary degree was presented to Laurel Walker, the retired president and CEO of Skip-A-Long Child Development Services and Skip-A-Long Family and Community Services.
In his address, Fr. Boyle discussed his quarter century of work in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles, an impoverished area often described as the gang capital of the world.
Following civil unrest in Boyle Heights and other LA neighborhoods in the summer of 1992, Fr. Boyle founded the Homeboy Bakery, the first of what would become eight businesses housed under the auspice of Homeboy Industries. Each business exists to help at-risk youth and former gang members learn the value of an honestly earned dollar.
In Tattoos on the Heart, Fr. Boyle describes Luis as a 20-something Latino, not long out of prison, and an ex-gang leader who had ranked among the hardest of the thousands of hardcore gang members Homeboy Industries was created to help.
Fr. Boyle writes about Luis' genuine amusement at the indiscriminate use of the superlative "great" by the middle-class Americans who tour Homeboy Bakery. Amused by Luis' amusement, the priest writes that he made certain to tell Luis how "great" so many things were in the aftermath of that conversation.
The story turns poignant when Fr. Boyle shares something Luis told him some months after that initial "great" discussion. Luis told him he had been stopped in his tracks when his 4-year-old daughter Tiffany surveyed her room in the apartment Luis had secured with his hard-earned paychecks from the bakery. Tiffany joyously declared it, "Great!"
"What's great, mija?" Luis asked his daughter. She responded, Fr. Boyle writes, with her little arms clutching her little heart, "MY HOOOME.'
"Luis seems to be unable to speak at exactly this moment," the author continues. "Our eyes find each other, and our souls well up, along with our eyes. ... I point at him. ‘You ... did ... this. You've never had a home in your life - now you have one. You did this. You were the biggest drug dealer in town, and you stopped and baked bread instead. You did this. You've never had a father in your life - and now you are one ... and I hate to have to tell you ... but ... you're great."
Only then, with this life-affirming story told, does Fr. Boyle reveal to his readers that the first time he told the "great" story was while delivering Luis' eulogy after the former gang leader was randomly shot dead by a pair of masked youths as he loaded the trunk of his car.
In the forward to his book, published in 2010, Fr. Boyle writes, "I buried my first young person killed because of gang violence in 1988 and, as of this writing, I have been called upon for this sad task 167 times."
That number has certainly grown, but in telling the story of Luis, Fr. Boyle reveals the essence of his mission, the thing that has kept him going in the face of heartbreak more than 150 times over.
"I told that packed church that Luis was a human being who came to know the truth about himself and liked what he found there," he writes. "Julian of Norwich, a 14th century female English mystic, saw the life struggle as coming to discover that we are ‘clothed in God's goodness.'
"This became Luis's life's work. He embraced this goodness - his greatness - and nothing really was the same again. And, really, what is death compared to knowing that? No bullet can pierce it."