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Barking to the Choir: The church as kinship community

Posted by Ron George on March 24, 2018

Gregory Boyle with the Choir: Souls feeling their worth


Read it and weep.

The phrase came to mind because that’s how I read Gregory Boyle’s Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinshipalways with a box of Kleenex within reach.

Read it and weep, though not in the usual sense, but with hankies to catch tears of tenderness and joy the falling of which heals something painful within. It’s that something – that need for healing within all of us – that engenders empathy with the homegirls and homies of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, Calif. – former gang members whose souls, to use Boyle’s phrase, have begun to feel their worth.

Kinship, by Cha Agung Cahyadi

Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has worked more than 30 years in LA barrios beset for generations by criminal neighborhood gangs. Boyle founded Homeboy Industries to provide services – training, employment, counseling and hope – to gang members willing to leave that life behind. Their stories, told by Boyle with compassion and wit, are the tear-jerkers in this his second book based on his experience among the gangs of LA. (The first, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, was a bestseller published in 2010.)

Boyle’s point is simple: Make love not war when dealing with people – anyone, in fact, not just gang members – whose behavior has become hopelessly malicious in order to deal with the pain, trauma and abandonment of their early lives. Oh, and by the way, don’t try to “save” them – let them save you.

Boyle is clear about this: The power of radical kinship is about letting yourself be loved in return, loved and changed in whatever ways will make you a truer version of yourself. That’s faith, not a concoction of doctrinal propositions and theological formulations but the existential moment within which your soul feels its worth. And be sure to have a hankie at hand.

There are dozens of moments full of grace in this book. One especially comes to mind for me, a moment that is choking me up even as I write this: A young woman meets with Boyle in his office at Homeboy Industries. She’s emerging scarred but whole from a young lifetime of unimaginable emotional abuse, personal violence and utter abandonment. She tells Boyle, “I wish you were God.” He, astonished, wonders why. She replies: “’Cuz … I think you’d let me into heaven.”

“This blindsides me,” Boyle writes. “I need my time to formulate a response as my eyes moisten. I grab her hands and pull her as close as I can across the top of my desk. I look her in the eyes. We are both crying. We gaze at each other for a very long time. ‘Letty,’ I begin. ‘IF I go to heaven and you’re not there … I’m not staying’.’”

Two souls. Feeling their worth.

I first encountered the soul of Gregory Boyle – aka G, his homey nickname – in 2007. I was listening to a podcast at the gym, weeping as I strode the treadmill. (Click here to hear the podcast. You will not begrudge the time.)

There are two wavelengths for coming to terms with Barking to the Choir: the emotional, leading to reflection touching upon the yearning that may well be within everyone; and the intellectual, because Boyle unpacks his vision of the Church in this book with loving forethought steeped in a rigorous theological education and an adult lifetime of thoughtful pastoral ministry.

Barking to the Choir is a gospel of sorts, a telling of good news; in fact, it is the best of all possible news, because it engenders hope. I can’t imagine a reader who isn’t softened by Boyle’s storytelling, whose heart isn’t thrown open at least for a moment or two, and in wonder: What is happening to me? What’s this feeling I have when I imagine the scene, hear the words and, in fact, witness the good news of salvation in lives that many in U.S. society consider worthless.

They are the Lord, says Boyle, referring to homeys and homegirls waiting in line for a moment of his time. We are the Lord. We are God in the flesh, those who commit to Love and to letting ourselves be transformed by its power – the power to change and to heal; in fact, the only power on Earth that truly changes and heals. It even makes enemies into friends, a phenomenon witnessed again and again at Homeboy Industries – former gang enemies becoming not just fellow employees but loving kin.

As a Christian skeptical of traditional theism, part of me wants to throw in the towel and say, “If ‘God’ is good enough for Gregory Boyle, then ‘God’ is good enough for me.” Substitute “Love” for “God” if you must; and, in fact, Boyle just might agree, but he knows God in the lives of those with whom he lives in kinship, and simply doesn’t get metaphysical about it – at least, not in the tear-jerking stories he tells about the lost who have found themselves to be of ultimate value – souls feeling their worth.

Gregory Boyle: Calling the church to become a kinship community

Boyle’s critique of the church is blended with his critique of a society that allows any of its members to be considered expendable. He has an edge when it comes to the insensitivity of governmental and ecclesiastical institutions toward communities that suffer poverty, deprivation and depravity and that victimize all who live within them, as though trapped in an upper level of Hell – not only the victims but also the perpetrators.

Barking to the Choir is a work of liberation theology in action – empowering the dispossessed, first and foremost, through the ministry of presence, standing with the poor over against the structures that oppress them. Showing (not “proclaiming”) the gospel by establishing mutual kinship in situ; and dissolving the walls, especially, of ecclesiastical structures (architectural as well as theological and doctrinal), that tend to intimidate and exclude the poor in spirit. (See Matthew 5.3.) All of which demonstrates the fundamental standpoint of liberation theology: The church is called to express its “preferential option for the poor.”

Boyle says Christian disciples are called to astonish the world, and so he has and so they do, all them – the homegirls and homeys and those who support Homeboy Industries. It’s a countercultural response to social and personal issues that generate so much pain that the paths of criminality and gang-life seem to be the only ways out. Boyle warns, too, that gang life is not about “belonging.” It’s about dying, he says, in the face of “a lethal absence of hope.”

Boyle’s cross may well be that some consider him as a saint. He’d deny it, unless it applied – and he believes it does – to all the homeys, homegirls and staff at Homeboy Industries. He says it again and again – they have changed his life as kinship has changed theirs. It’s the Body of Christ in action – the real one, not the institutional church. And yet, I also imagine Greg Boyle in Eucharistic vestments celebrating Mass, a priest of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Imagine: A priest at the altar for whom God’s grace is his everyday encounter with brokenness made whole by the grace of kinship – God’s grace – and then returned as love in community.

That’s the Church, isn’t it? It’s the kinship community of disciples – not Jesus fans – for whom feeding, clothing, visiting, helping, caring for all who have need (See Acts 2.43-47) is the only thing that matters. Everything else is froufrou; pleasing, but ephemeral, puffs of thurible smoke rising to “symbolize” the prayers of the people of God. There may be (and probably is) a place for ceremonial worship and individual spirituality in the life of the church, but only within the context of the kinship community’s first order of business – standing with the poor and dispossessed, drawing the kinship circle so as to include those who are otherwise outcast; and, above all, submitting to love in return, the Love that saves us from ourselves.

If God there be, God be there. 


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