What does it look like to be a missionary in the western world? That’s the question I’ve had for a long time. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject, but to be honest, it’s sometimes difficult to understand what it looks like.
Until I read this book, Tattoos On the Heart.
This book tells the story of Gregory Boyle whom assumes the leadership of a church in the most gang-infested corner of Los Angeles. He says:
If Los Angeles was the gang capital of the world, our little postage-stamp-size area on the map was the gang capital of LA.
In his journey to minister to gang members, who are always trying to kill each other, he ends up opening a bakery store called “Home Boy Industries” where he employs people who want to get out of the gang lifestyle.
This book gives you a picture of what it looks like to incarnate and love the people you’re serving. You will laugh and cry. It’s real and really raw and you’ll be better off for reading it. In my last few years of reading books on the subject of “missional” this books stands out as one of the best.
Here’s a few of my favorite quotes to give you a picture:
All throughout Scripture and history, the principal suffering of the poor is not that they can’t pay their rent on time or that they are three dollars short of a package of Pampers. As Jesus scholar Marcus Borg points out, the principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame— a global sense of failure of the whole self. This shame can seep so deep down. I asked a homie once, after Mass at a probation camp, if he had any brothers and sisters. “Yeah,” he says, “I have one brother and one sister,” and then he’s quick to add, with emphasis, “but THEY’RE GOOD.” “Oh,” I tell him, “and that would make YOU …?” “Here,” he says, “locked up.” “And THAT would make you …?” I try again. “Bad,” he says. Homies seem to live in the zip code of the eternally disappointing, and need a change of address. To this end, one hopes (against all human inclination) to model not the “one false move” God but the “no matter whatness” of God. You seek to imitate the kind of God you believe in, where disappointment is, well, Greek to Him. You strive to live the black spiritual that says, “God looks beyond our fault and sees our need.” Before this can take hold in gang members, they strut around in protective shells of posturing, which stunts their real and complete selves.
On enemies working together:
No question gets asked of me more than, “What’s it like to have enemies working together?” The answer: it is almost always tense at first. A homie will beg for a job, and perhaps I have an opening at the Bakery. “But you’re gonna have to work with X, Y, and Z,” naming enemies already working there. He thinks a bit and invariably will say: “I’ll work with him, but I’m not gonna talk to him.” In the early days, this would unsettle me. Until I discovered that it always becomes impossible to demonize someone you know.
On leaving the office and meeting with homies:
Once I had made the decision to not be a slave to my office, I wandered the projects, often approaching (uninvited) the various groupings of gang members, which spotted every corner and crevice of the housing developments. The reception was almost always chilly. (This changed only after I began to visit homies from the community who were locked up or wounded in the hospital.) There was one kid in particular everyone knew as Cricket. To say that he would “give me the cold shoulder” would impugn shoulders. Cricket, fifteen years old, would walk away when I approached and would return to the bola (I noticed) once I left. I investigated and discovered his name was William. One day I walk up to this group of gang members, with Cricket among them, and he doesn’t disappear on me. I shake hands with all of them, and when I get to Cricket, he actually lets me shake his hand. “William,” I say to him, “How you doin’? It’s good to see ya.” William says nothing. But as I walk away (I always made a point of not staying very long), I can hear William in a very breathy, age-appropriate voice, say to the others, “Hey, the priest knows my name.”
On the strategy of Jesus:
The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.
How to abolish slavery and hatred:
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?”
How long do you stand with the “other”?
You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.
There are dozens of powerful stories in the book. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.
[image by Kevin Stanchfield]