Thursday, February 7, 2019

City Notes '19 | Tattoos on the Heart: Compassion is Not a Relationship between the Healer and the Wounded; It's a Covenant Between Equals





Compassion is always, at its most authentic, about a shift from the cramped world of self-preoccupation into a more expansive place of fellowship, of true kinship.


As I continue to learn what embodied and practiced compassion looks and acts like, Father Gregory Boyle and the community of Dolores Mission Church and Homeboy Industries have proven worthy mentors. In watching the G-Dog documentary and reading both Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, I continue to get a reality check from the man who said, "I was taught everything of value by gang members," as well as the gang members who were and are his mentors.

Father Greg likes to say of his homilies during mass, "I illustrate the gospel with three stories and usually tell another one just before communion." Today in this post, I want to share two more of those stories with you included in the excerpts below from Chapter 3: Compassion and Chapter 4: Water, Oil, Flame in Tattoos on the Heart. If you like either of the stories, please go ahead and purchase Tattoos on the Heart and/or Barking to the Choir as there are dozens more amazing stories and all proceeds go to Homeboy Industries.

1 |"I will teach him everything I know."


I met Anthony through legendary Eastside probation officer Mary Ridgway. "Help this kid," she pleads over the phone. Mary told me where I might bump into him, since his last known address was his car, left for dead on Michigan Street.

At nineteen years old, Anthony had been on his own for a while. His parents had disappeared long ago in a maelstrom of heroin and prison time, and he was fending for himself, selling the occassional vial of PCP to buy Big Macs and the occasional Pastrami Madness at Jim's. He was a tiny fella, and when he spoke, his voice was puny, reed-thin, and high-pitched. If you closed your eyes, you'd think you were "conversating" (as the homies say) with a twelve-year-old.

One day we're both leaning up against his "tore up" ranfla, and our conversation is drifting toward the "what do you want to be when you grow up" theme. "I want to be a mechanic. Don't know nothing 'bout cars, really. But I'd like to learn it." 

My mechanic, Dennis, on Brooklyn Avenue, was something of a legend in the barrio. Dennis could fix any car. A tall, pole-thin, Japanese American in his near sixties, Dennis was a chain smoker. He was not a man of few words  he was a man of no d%*n words at all. He just smoked. You'd bring your car in, complaining of some noise under the hood, and hand the keys to Dennis, who would stand there with a cigarette dangling from his lips. He'd take the keys, and when you turned around the next day, he'd give you your car, purring as it should. No words were exchanged during this entire transaction.

So I go to Dennis to plead my case. "Look, Dennis," I say, sitting in his cramped office, truly a smoke-filled room. "Hire this kid Anthony. True enough he doesn't know anything about cars, but he sure is eager, and I think he could learn stuff." Dennis just stares at me, nodding slightly, long ash hovering at the end of his frajo, deciding whether to jump off the cliff or not. I redouble my efforts. I tell Dennis that this won't just be one job for one homie but will create a ripple effect of peace in the entire neighborhood. Long drags of silence and a stony stare. I get out my shovel and my top hat and cane. Nobel Peace Prize, will alter the course of history, will change the world as we know it. Nothing. Dennis just fills his lungs with smoke, as I fill the air with earnest pleas. Finally, I give up and shut up. I've done the best I can and I'm ready to call it a day. Then Dennis takes one long last sucking drag on his cigarette and releases it into the air, smoke wafting in front of his face, clouding my view. Once every trace of smoke is let out, he looks at me, and this is the only thing he says that day:

"I will teach him everything I know."

And so Anthony became a mechanic. He would give me periodic updates. "I learned how to do a lube job today." "I fixed a carboretor all by myself." 

He hands me a photograph one day. There is Anthony, with a broad smile, face smudged with axle grease, workshirt with ANTHONY embroidered proudly on his chest. No question, to look at this face is to know that its owner is a transformed man. But standing next to him in the picture, with an arm around Anthony (and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth) is Dennis, an equally changed human being. And all because Dennis, one day, decided to rip the roof off the place. Being in the world who God is. The ones on the outside have been let in. 

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a covenant between equals. Compassion is always, at its most authentic, about a shift from the cramped world of self-preoccupation into a more expansive place of fellowship, of true kinship.

| 2 | One would be hard-pressed to imagine something more sacred and ordinary than six orphans staring at an oven together.


I had a twenty-three-year-old homie named Miguel working for me on our graffiti crew. As with a great many of our workers, I had met him years earlier while he was detained. He was an extremely nice kid, whose pleasantness was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he had been completely abandoned by his family. Prior to their rejection of him, they had mistreated, abused, and scarred him plenty. He calls me one New Year's Day. "Happy New Year, G."

"Hey, that's very thoughtful of ya, dog," I say. "You know, Miguel, I was thinkin' of ya  you know, on Christmas. So, whad ya do for Christmas?" I asked knowing that he had no family to welcome him in. "Oh, you know, I was just right here," meaning his tiny little apartment, where he lives alone. 

"All by yourself?" I ask. "Oh no," he quickly says, "I invited homies from the crew  you know, vatos like me who didn't had no place to go for Christmas." He names the five homies who came over  all former enemies from rival gangs.

"Really," I tell him, "that sure was nice of you." But he's got me revved up and curious now. "So," I ask him, "what did you do?"

"Well," he says, "you're not gonna believe this ...  but ... I cooked a turkey." You can feel his pride right through the phone. "Wow, you did? Well, how did you prepare it?"

"You know," he says, "Ghetto-style." I tell him that I'm not really familiar with this recipe. He's more than happy to give up his secret." Yeah, well you just rub it with a gang a' butter, throw a bunch a' salt and pepper on it, squeeze a couple of limones over it and put it in the oven. It tasted proper."

I said, "Wow, that's impressive. What else did you have besides the turkey?" "Just that. Just turkey," he says. His voice tapers to a hush. "Yeah. The six of us, we just sat there, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done."

One would be hard-pressed to imagine something more sacred and ordinary than these six orphans staring at an oven together. It is the entire law and the prophets, all in one moment, right there, in this humble, holy kitchen.

Next post: City Notes '19 | Tattoos on the Heart: "We Are Not Called to Be Successful, but Faithful." + Mother Theresa

Here are links to previous City Notes books:


2017 | Gospel Fluency; Moving Towards Emmaus; Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalFaith Without Illusions

2018 | The Eternal CurrentLearning to Speak God

2019 | Tattoos on the Heart Part 1 of 2

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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