May 3, 2013

Winning Gangs With Compassion

This book was a New York Times best seller, and charts the ministry of Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and founder and director ofHomeboy Industries’. Their mission statement sums up what they do far more adequately than I could hope to:

Our Mission: Jobs not Jails: Homeboy Industries assists at-risk and formerly gang involved youth to become positive and contributing members of society through job placement, training and education.”

The nine chapters are choc-full of stories and anecdotes about gang members he has met in his life, those he has helped and those who have died. In each chapter he attempts to extrapolate some meaning from the stories and apply them to themes such as, ‘compassion, jurisdiction, hope, and gladness’.

So, what to say about this book? Firstly, how can we not help but admire a man who has selflessly dedicated his life to helping gang members of every stripe get out of trouble, find meaningful employment, and make a positive contribution to society? Some of his stories are heartbreaking, some hilarious, and some deeply inspiring. I won’t pretend that gangland LA is anything like Niddrie. We certainly don’t have that same widespread gun culture (yet). Here it is knives, claw hammers, mallets, the odd shooting, and Samurai swords. If anything, the book resonated with my time in Brasil with street gangs—a sort of LA without the law and order! There are some real gems hidden in the book. Consider the following response to a question about how ‘you work with the poor’:

You don’t. You share your life with the poor. It’s as basic as crying together. It’s about “casting your lot” before it ever becomes about “changing their lot.”

Or, consider this thought in relation to pressurising the powers for social change.

If we choose to be in the right place, God, through us, creates a community of resistance without our even realising it…Our locating ourselves with those who have been endlessly excluded becomes an act of viable protest. For no amount of our screaming at the people in charge to change things can change them…The powers bent on waging war against the poor and the young and the “other’ will only be moved to kinship when they observe it. Only when we see a community where the outcast is valued and appreciated will we abandon the values that seek to exclude.

It seems almost churlish to critique a book that left one reviewer “in tears of both sorrow and laughter”. It has been favourably reviewed by film stars, pastors, secularists, and atheists alike. Like Mother Theresa, the good works of this book shine for all to see. And yet . . .

If I am honest, the endless stories become a bit tiresome and mask the theological superficiality of the book. Happy stories, sad stories, and funny stories—and I wonder if what stops him from becoming depressed and insane is his universalistic approach to life. I may be wrong, but what I took from this book is that pretty much all people get to go to heaven, even bad-boy gang members. I will say that I absolutely appreciated his ‘positive’ spin on the average gang member. His emphasis on seeing the common grace of God in humanity is a lesson to those of us who have become jaded over the years by working with inveterate liars, manipulators, and cheats. It’s often easier to jump to the doctrine of total depravity as our starting point. Yet, there’s that feeling again that he comes up short every time. At times, I found myself almost willing him to just make the gospel leap. When Jesus is mentioned, it’s only for some homespun wisdom or as a vague example for us all to follow. In the end, to be perfectly honest, this could have been a book about any religious person in the world and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the overall feel.

As the subtext says, there is a ‘power of boundless compassion’, but there is a far greater power in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds the Romans, it is, ‘the power to salvation for all who will believe.’ Their mission statement above is one I can identify with and something we hope to emulate on the scheme with micro-businesses and helping our new believers back to work. But my dream is that God saves them from the coming wrath. Jesus came to humanity to seek and save the lost. That was his primary mission: The souls of the perishing. That’s why, I suppose, this book ultimately left me more than a little sad. It seemed to imply that our job on earth is merely to fill in the time between now and the end by serving in compassionate love those whom society rejects. I weep for the lost in the many schemes and council estates of our nation that have no access to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, I want to help them and serve them and show compassion to them through acts of service, love, and sacrifice. But, I weep for their souls. We need a spiritual renewal in our land long before we need a socio-economic one.

A great little book, and worth a read if only for the inspirational stories. Theologically, it will leave you somewhat frustrated.

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