Being Reached by the Widow, Orphan, and Stranger

by Eileen Corkery



Fr. Gregory Boyle, S.J., spoke at Boston College on the night of Tuesday, February 7 before an overflowing Robsham Theater. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program located in the heart of Los Angeles. Established in 1992, Homeboy is now the largest gang rehabilitation and reentry program in the world. Boyle is also the author of the 2010 The New York Times Best Seller, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, a series of parables and essays inspired by his time working in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, known as the ‘gang capital of the world.’


The Boston College Church in the 21st Century Center hosted Boyle as a part of this semester’s programming theme of “Forming Conscience.” In his talk, Boyle argued that in order to be properly formed in conscience, one ultimately must first be rooted in God’s love.


Thomas Groome, director of the C21 Center, introduced Boyle to the audience. He said of Boyle that he “is one of the most credible witnesses to the values, to the commitment, and the compassion of Jesus Christ. And in our day and age, I think we are in dire need of this witness.”


Boyle began his talk by proudly introducing two of his “homies,” two former gang members from Los Angeles currently working at Homeboy Industries. He then spoke about how his own sense of conscience has been shaped by his encounters with others, especially through his work at Homeboy: “It’s the privilege of my life how my own heart has been altered and the homies have helped me move beyond the mind I have.”


He then encouraged the audience to envision a perfect world, one in which there is no suffering, poverty, or marginalization: “To somehow imagine the world that God hopes we’ll create...a community of kinship, such that God may recognize it. How can we imagine a circle of compassion and then imagine no one standing outside that circle? How do we dismantle the barriers that exclude?”


For Boyle, that process of conscientiously dismantling barriers begins with the acknowledgement of love— for God, others, and oneself. He invoked Mother Teresa’s wisdom that “we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Boyle also used Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s mantra of a ‘God who is greater’ to describe the “expansive, oceanic magnitude of God’s love for us.”


Boyle believes that limited views of God are problematic, because they leave humans yearning for more. They lead to a doubting of the ability of God to intervene in day-to-day life. Consequently, this is what causes humans to turn to sin: “We need a better God than the one we have. Our own arrested development keeps us in this tiny puny God and we want to get to something larger… to the God who loves us without measure and without regret. To the God whose joy it is to love us.”


Under Boyle’s reasoning, a pure conscience relies not mainly on religious texts, but instead on the belief that God’s infinite love will be there no matter what— that there is no reason to turn to sin: “In the end, if you wrap your mind around a God who only wants for us, too busy loving us to have any time loving us to be disappointed, then you would feel no need to steal or lie.” For this reason, interiority of one’s faith is crucial for formation of one’s conscience. It is through the realization of God’s overwhelming love that one feels fulfilled; only then can love be spread to others. Love is expressed through the “core values Jesus took seriously: inclusion, non-violence, unconditional compassionate loving kindness, and acceptance.”


Finally, Boyle offered a challenge to the audience in their own pursuit of conscientious living: “I invite you not to go out there and try to make a difference. Don’t. Go to the margins— to the widow, orphan, and stranger— and allow yourself to be reached by them. It feels passive and selfish, but it’s the way it’s supposed to work. In all humility, you go out there and you wait for your guides for where God hopes we’ll end up— in kinship with each other. And, in the end, it is our kinship with each other, our movement, that this is God’s dream come true. It is the only praise God has any interest in.”


Boyle’s full talk can be viewed on the C21 website. His book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion can be purchased through the Boston College Bookstore.

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