BY ERIN CONWAY | January 30, 2017
If you’re anything like me, you may have found yourself fighting a sense of hopelessness when looking at the current reality in which we live. We are flooded with pictures of a world drowning in an apparent lack of compassion, a disinterest in engaging in dialogue, a quickness to demonize, and a distancing from the central message of the Gospel. Hope seems hard to locate.
I teach seniors at Saint Martin de Porres, Cleveland’s Cristo Rey high school. At the start of our school year, my Theology classes read Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ’s masterpiece, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. Most of my students are not Catholic, and as a result, I’m always searching for an access point into their reality and consciousness. Because Fr. Greg’s text has shaped my own personal understanding of God and our common call to kinship, it seemed like a logical stepping off point for our shared conversation. After six weeks of reading, journaling, and discussion, I found myself looking into the eyes of students who recognized themselves in the pages of the book and were transformed. I discovered that while reading Tattoos on the Heart has impacted my own life in more ways than I can count, watching my students be transformed by its message has proven immeasurably more life changing. Hope broke through.
Perhaps the most powerful element of this unit, the place where hope seeped in abundantly, was in its juxtaposition to the rhetoric of election season. My students, like all Americans, have been inundated with words that spread hatred, fear, and racism. I have heard confusion, anger, frustration and even fear in their voices as they shared their reality with me. Time and again I have felt vastly inadequate in the face of these emotions, unprepared and unable to provide answers or clarity. Fr. Greg’s words shared a hope with them that I struggled to articulate. What they discovered in the pages of Tattoos on the Heart was a truth that exists in stark contrast to the messages of our world: You are loved. Your voice matters. Your life matters.
The letters that follow are letters written (and sent) to Fr. Greg himself, letters that respond to the question: What story, theme, quote, or character has been tattooed on your heart during this unit? As you read these examples, I hope that you are able to catch a glimpse of their hearts. I am humbled by my students’ ability to capture the most important pieces of Fr. Greg’s message – the centrality of kinship, forgiveness, non-judgment, hope, and love. Tattoos on the Heart helped restore their faith in each other and in our world, and their words have given me hope for a brighter future. They give me hope that my students, along with other young Americans, will rise above the hatred and the fear, that they will continue to cry out for justice from their place on the margins, and that they will continue to love others, love God, and above all love themselves.
Dear Fr. Greg,
I am a senior at Saint Martin De Porres High School in Cleveland, Ohio. In my theology class we recently read Tattoos On The Heart. There were several stories that stuck out when I read your book, but one of them really resonated with me. The story that I chose was about a homie named Willy. In the story Willy went to the ATM with you, but you left him in the car in case you ran into any rival gang members. While Willy was in the car alone he began praying. When you returned to the car, Willy was close to tears. When you asked Willy how God saw him he responded by saying, “God thinks I’m firme”(24). This story reminded me that we as humans are always looking for gratification and acceptance from others. It’s normal to want to be loved and cared for.
I am beginning this new phase in my life. Soon I’ll be graduating from high school and going off to college. I’ll be going to a new place, with new people and new experiences. I’m entering adulthood, and I’m honestly terrified. Being a child provided a sense of stability for me. Children aren’t expected to be responsible and make the right decisions in their lives, but soon I won’t be considered a child. I’ll be expected to find my way in the world like every other adult does. I know that I’ll make bad decisions sometimes. The stories that I referenced from your book remind me that God will always accept me and think that I am an amazing person. It’s easy to feel alone in the world. There’s so much hardship and chaos today, so it’s easy to lose perspective of the positive things.
In the beginning, I didn’t want to read this book because I thought that I wouldn’t be able to understand or relate to it. It was just another school assignment that I was going to do to get the grade. As I began to read, however, I realized that it wasn’t just another book about God. It was a book about my God. The God that I know and love. I could relate and understand this God. Most books that I have read about God might as well have been written in a foreign language because I couldn’t understand them. This was not a cookie-cutter God or a cookie-cutter book, which is great because we don’t live in a cookie-cutter world. This book told stories about real people and real struggles. In my neighborhood it seems like people are always dying at the hand of someone else. It’s sad that this is my reality, but I suppose that’s just how it is. The people in Tattoos On The Heart remind me of the people that I see everyday. We are all just floating through the world trying to make it. God is right there guiding us even though we can’t always see him. This book reminds me that no one is hopeless. Everyone can be successful and find peace through God. Our success is not determined by wealth or anything trivial. It is determined by how hard we try to better ourselves as people.
Dear Fr. Greg,
Your book, Tattoos on the Heart, has helped me to realize that I am great and that I don’t need to change anything about myself. In the chapter “Water, Oil, Flame,” you brought up personal identity and that is why this is my favorite chapter. I love the quote, “Everyone is just looking to be told that who he or she is is right and true and wholly acceptable. No need to tinker and tweak. Exactly right” (95). You tell stories that show that all of the things that happen to you happen for a reason. They all have one thing in common, and it is that no matter what you have been through in your life (good or bad), you don’t have to change yourself to become a better person. You should embrace the things that you have gone through and make them brighter. You don’t need anyone’s opinion on who or what you are as an individual, because at the end of that day, God put you on this earth for a reason, and if you are to give an opinion in the book, it is always positive and uplifting.
The second story that stuck out to me was the story about Natalie and how she was a handful, but you couldn’t help but to love her still. I fell in love with the quote that you used at the end of her story. It said, “Resilience is born by grounding yourself in your own loveliness, hitting notes you thought were way out of your range” (94). This quote made me smile so hard, I kept reading it over and over again because it is the truth. You have to try in order to realize that you can do or be anything that you want. I think that a lot of people should hear this quote because not a lot of people realize the blessings that they have. I want to… scratch that, I am going to memorize this quote so that I can spread it on to others because I think that it would help a lot of people find their individuality.
Reading your book has had a big influence on me. It has opened my eyes to a lot of things and has made me realize that everybody is somebody. I never really paid attention to other people, whether they were rich or poor, in the streets or not. I would always just focus on myself and my family and friends around me. But you have showed me that sometimes you have to take the time out to look at the world around you. You have helped many people in your lifetime and reading your book has made me realize that I want to help others too. Thank you for giving me the knowledge and confidence to succeed and help those around me who need it.
Erin Conway teaches senior Theology at Saint Martin de Porres, Cleveland’s Cristo Rey High School. Prior to her time at Saint Martin, Erin worked at Xavier College Prep High School in Palm Desert, CA and Saint Ignatius Loyola Academy in Baltimore, MD. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2009 and earned an M.A.T. from Loyola University in Maryland in 2012. Her dream is for all of her students to recognize God at work in their lives and to embrace the very real ways they can work for justice in their own communities.