Barking to the Choir


I’d jump at the chance to take a slow boat to China with Greg Boyle.  He has an inspired sense of the ultimate nature of things, and a laugh from downtown.  Talk about playful, loving and deep.

Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has buried more than 200 young human beings he knows and loves, all killed because of gang violence.  Killed by people he also knows and loves.  Some 30 years ago, he founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, today the largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program on the planet.  His second book was published recently.  It’s titled “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.”  The choir, to Boyle, is everyone who longs and aches to widen their “loving look” at what’s right in front of them.  I’m glad I don’t have to pony up a fin every time I’ve underlined something I never want to forget.

The book brims with the twist of tears and laughter in the form of indelible stories, virtually none of them you’ll find below.  That’s my gift to you: the pleasure of discovering them afresh for yourself.  What awaits you here is a different gift: a sampling of the ideas that animate Boyle’s view of how God might explain Himself.  Ideas that enrich our endless dance with the question that eventually sets our life ablaze: Who am I?

Before you begin, a word: Each bullet below offers a lot to chew on, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself experiencing what I call the “Museum Effect”: no matter how captivating something is there is only so much of it we can take at one time.  So pace yourself.  Savor.

  • In all my years of living, I have never been given greater access to the tenderness of God than through the channel of the thousands of homies I’ve been privileged to know.  The day simply won’t ever come when I am nobler or more compassionate or asked to carry more than these men and women.
  • I’ve learned from giving thousands of talks that you never appeal to the conscience of your audience but, rather, introduce them to their own goodness.
  • At Homeboy Industries, we don’t prepare for the real world––we challenge it.  For the opposite of the “real world” is not the “unreal world” but the kinship of God.
  • Often enough, we get in the habit of shaking our fists at God and saying, WHAT do you WANT from me?  We are programmed this way as humans.  But I suppose it would be more accurate to ask God this: What do you want FOR me?  For starters: life, happiness, and peace.  My joy yours.  Your joy complete.  That’s it.  Nothing less than that.
  • God is too busy loving you to have any time left over to be disappointed.
  • When we are disappointed in each other, we least resemble God.
  • “Ever since Happiness heard your name,” the poet Hafez writes, “it’s been running down the street trying to find you.”
  • As human beings, we find it difficult to recognize the holy as God does.  Nothing is outside the realm of sanctity, for the world is infused with God’s presence.
  • Every single moment of our lives asks us to be charmed, captivated, enticed, thrilled, and pleased.
  • Our mistakes are not the measure of who we are.
  • It would seem that, quite possibly, the ultimate measure of health in any community might well reside in our ability to stand in awe at what folks have to carry rather than in judgment at how they carry it.
  • Awe compels us to try and understand what language her behavior is speaking.  Judgment never gets past behavior.
  • We are at our healthiest when we are most situated in awe, and at our least healthy when we engage in judgment.
  • Judgment, after all, takes up the room you need for loving.
  • Readying oneself for awe, at every turn, insists that compassion is always the answer to the question before us.
  • Kinship asks us to move from blame to understanding.
  • When judgment ceases to consume all the oxygen in the room, an astonishing love takes its place and we can then be touched by it all.
  • The Buddha teaches that life is only available in the here and now.  Jesus doesn’t teach differently.  We hold out for happiness, healing, transformation, always awaiting a few more conditions that need to be met.  This is one of the reasons why happiness eludes us in the now: we still think it’s around the corner.
  • If your anchor is not centered in today, then you’ll blink and miss the delight of this very moment, which is always with us and the perfect teacher.
  • Paradise is not a place that awaits our arrival but a present we arrive at.  A place, in fact, we are already in.
  • Pema Chödrön invites us to “let ourselves be nailed to the present moment.”  Certainly, if we live in the past, we will be depressed.  If we live in the future, we are guaranteed anxiety.  Now is always vast and new.  Like any practice, it’s not about technique or program.  It’s a decision.
  • Not a second passes that doesn’t allow us to ripen, to witness our life with playfulness, flexibility, and an open heart.
  • Richard Rohr was right: “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living.  We live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”
  • “Happiness,” Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “only comes from kindness and compassion.”
  • Homeboy’s message is not “You can measure up someday.”  Rather, it is: “Who you are is enough.”
  • If love is the answer, community is the context, and tenderness is the methodology.
  • There is nothing more essential, vital, and important than love and its carrier––tenderness––practiced in the present moment.  By keeping it close, just right now, we are reminded to choose connection over alienation, kinship over self-absorption.
  • I’m sitting in my office with Anderson Cooper when he says, “The police say you’re naïve.  That gang members take advantage of you.”  I always have the same answer at the ready: “How can someone take my advantage when I’m giving it?”
  • “The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you’re smaller than yourself,” Phillips Brooks writes, “but to stand at your height against some higher nature…”
  • Mystics ask God to remind them that they are nothing.  This is irritating to the ego’s need for self-importance.
  • “Sell your cleverness,” Rumi writes, “and buy bewilderment.”
  • The homies have always jostled me out of my self-absorption.  They are masters at it.
  • The more you take things personally, the more you suffer.  You observe it, hold it up to the light, release it, and move on.  You can choose to let suffering be the elevator to a heightened place of humble loving.
  • For the opposite of clinging is not letting go, but cherishing.
  • After all, God doesn’t want anything “from” us, only “for” us.  God won’t be loving a homie more if he stops gang-banging.  God only has this holy longing to free us from terror and anxiety.
  • “Working on yourself” doesn’t move the dial on God’s love.  After all, that is already fixed at its highest setting.
  • “I used to walk the bad path,” one might say, “but now I’m on the good path.”  It’s a natural thing to say, but I don’t think there are two paths.  There is only the Good Journey.  We are never on any other path but that one.
  • I have taken, lately, to loosely quoting Pope Francis, who says that communion is not some grand prize for the perfect person but rather food for the hungry one.
  • God is not waiting around for us to prove our worthiness.
  • The Homeboy slogan is taken from Richard Rohr, who says, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”  It’s heartening to hear homies speak of this to their younger charges.  I tell the older guys, the ones who run the place, that it’s never about behavior, it’s about identity––that versions of an old self have to die in order for a new, brilliant one to emerge and see the light.
  • Every homie I know who has killed somebody––every one––has carried a load one hundred times heavier than I have had to carry, weighted down by torture, violence, abuse, neglect, abandonment, or mental illness.  Most of us have never borne that weight.  We are free not to like that truth, but we are not free to deny it.
  • At her sentencing to life without the possibility of parole, a young woman states simply, “I did what they say I did, but I’m not who they say I am.”
  • Desmond Tutu was right when he said there are no evil people, just evil acts; no monsters, just monstrous acts.  A probation officer used to say, when certain homies would come up in conversation, “No use trying to help that guy.  He’s pure evil.”  Such comments merely compelled me to re-double my efforts.  Slapping the dismissive label of “evil” on a person has never seemed very sophisticated or reverent of human complexity.
  • Moral outrage is the opposite of God; it only divides and separates what God wants for us, which is to be united in kinship.  Moral outrage doesn’t lead us to solutions––it keeps us from them.  It keeps us from moving toward a fuller, more compassionate response to members of our community who belong to us, no matter what they’ve done.
  • “No one is born a slave,” a homie named Cisco tells me, “but some of us are born into slavery.”
  • It’s not about take the right stand on issues but about standing in the right place, with the excluded and the demonized.
  • One day I overheard a homie who was giving a tour of our headquarters say to his group, “Here at Homeboy, we laugh from the stomach.”  This is no small thing.  The laughter comes from the deepest place.  Nothing fake or superficial.  As the world has its occasionally grim realities to contend with and everyone carries than their share of woes, laughing from the stomach ensures our survival.
  • To embrace tenderness, writes the theologian Jean Vanier, is the highest mark of spiritual maturity.
  • We could ask ourselves, I suppose, if God is conservative or liberal, but I think that’s the wrong question.  Instead we should ask: Is God expansive or tiny?  Is God spacious or shallow?  Is God inclusive or exclusive?  What are the chances that God holds the same tiny point of view as I do?  Well, zero.
  • In the end, though, the measure of our compassion with what Martin Luther Kind calls “the last, the least, and the lost” lies less in our service of those on the margins, and more in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.  It speaks of a kinship so mutually rich that even the dividing line of service provider/service recipient is erased.  We are sent to the margins NOT to make a difference but so that the folks on the margins with make us different.
  • Many high school volunteers, long accustomed to building the orphanage or feeding the homeless in a soup kitchen, ask me what they’re supposed to do at Homeboy, and I always answer: “Wrong question.  The right one is: What will happen to you here?”
  • We always seem to be faced with this choice: to save the world or savor it.  I want to propose that savoring is better, and that when we seek to “save” and “contribute” and “give back” and “rescue” folks and EVEN “make a difference,” then it is all about you…and the world stays stuck.  The homies are not waiting to be saved.  They already are.  The same is true for service providers and those in any ministry.  The good news, of course, is that when we choose to “savor” the world, it gets saved.  Don’t set out to change the world.  Set out to wonder how people are doing.

What a boat ride that would be.



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