Review: Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (Simon & Schuster, 2017)

[1] Whoever read Greg Boyle’s first book has been waiting for the next. Tattoos on the Heart (Simon & Schuster/Free Press 2010) introduced readers to the ministries of Homeboy Industries in east Los Angeles.

[2] Fr. Greg Boyle wasn’t always CEO of Homeboy; he started his own ministry as priest of Dolores Mission Parish in Boyle Heights, an area wracked with gunfire and gang wars. Having failed at shuttle diplomacy between rival gangs, Boyle suddenly realized that best way to stop a bullet was a job. The idea of Homeboy was born.

[3] At the outset, Boyle wasn’t a successful CEO. His first attempt at job-training failed miserably. Homeowners just didn’t want ex-felons fixing their plumbing. But when he stumbled on an abandoned bakery in the ‘Hood, Boyle put aprons on ex-gang members and taught them how to bake. Pretty soon he added silk-screening and embroidery. In time there was a Homegirl Café, “where your coffee is served with attitude.”

[4] Whatever the trade, tattoo removal has always been part of the ministry. As these “homies” take on new identities, they long to lose the marks of old allegiances. Tattoo removal isn’t easy and it isn’t quick. The procedures are numerous and the pain is real. But then, turning a life around doesn’t happen easily either. Change starts and stops, and all too often new lives get cut short by old grudges. To those who have survived their pasts, Homeboy Industries issues an invitation to turn their lives around, literally, metanoia. Greg stands in awe of people who put aside the wages of gang warfare to learn the gentler arts of parenting and partnering, of showing up for themselves and for each other.

[5] Finally, Boyle wasn’t always an author. His first book rose out of the need to “find a home for these stories” and etch their common themes on the hearts of his readers. It worked. I found myself marked by these stories – and eager for more. Boyle’s second book, Barking at the Choir, builds out the theme of kinship. Here Boyle reflects on his own formation as a “son of Ignatius,” which means “that all the stories of my life get filtered through this Jesuit lens” (5).

[6] I want to look more closely through that Jesuit lens, because Boyle’s distinctively Ignatian angle-of-vision both complements and corrects my own. As a Lutheran theologian, I find enormous resonance with Ignatian spirituality. Were Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) separated at birth?

[7] Luther went on to become the university professor who led a reform movement; Ignatius began life as a courtier until injury shattered his legs and ruined his prospects at court. A long recovery became a spiritual transformation, and in his mid-thirties he began the studies Luther had begun as a teenager. Luther’s theological and philosophical rigor is well-matched by Ignatius’ spiritual and psychological acuity. These two approaches need each other.

[8] Both Lutheran and Ignatian approaches to creation find the world “charg’d with the grandeur of God,” to borrow from Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. With academic precision, Luther argues that the finite is wide open to divine mystery (finitum capax infiniti). Ignatius expresses the same conviction—but in more earthy terms. His challenge to “find God in all things” is the cantus firmus of this book, and the stories return again and again to this theme. Boyle refuses to correct a homie who mistakes the biblical “lo and behold” for “holy befold,” because the malapropism reminds him that God steadfastly refuses to be confined. Ignatius himself discouraged Jesuits from meditating on lofty abstractions, instructing them instead to consider the world. When a drunk disrupts a rare moment of relaxation in Boyle’s Jesuit community by banging on the front door, the Jesuit who finally responds returns to inform the rest of the community that it was just Jesus, “in his least recognizable form,” (77). The spiritual discipline that finds God in all things sustains Boyle in his ministry. There’s a difference between seeing Christ in the face of the neighbor and discovering Jesus “in his least recognizable form.” As a Lutheran theologian, I take note.

[9] Let’s stay with Jesus for a moment.

[10] Both Lutheran and Ignatian approaches to God focus on the second person of the Trinity. Luther’s theology is robustly Christocentric, finding in Christ the Word made flesh. In the incarnation, Christ exchanges his righteousness for human sin, rendering any effort to achieve salvation fruitless and, worse, faithless. Luther redirects all that effort toward works of loving service to the “neighbor,” his chief designation of the other. The only appropriate response to this miracle of salvation is faith, that is, believing the inconceivable to be true.

[11] In contrast, Jesuit spirituality is thoroughly “Jesu-centric.” Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises take retreatants through the life of Jesus, which they enter through imagination, not some leap of faith. The Exercises bring Jesus up close and personal, and he morphs from Savior into brother, more pointedly, a brother who’s got your back. The most appropriate response to such intimacy is love.

[12] If Jesus is your brother as well as my brother, that makes us siblings. Brothers and sisters share the love they’ve received with others, making them all members of the same family or “kin,” Boyle’s chief designation of the other. This makes for a big, rowdy family, and Boyle references Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

[13] Listen to the words of a homie, who discovered her true worth even as she headed into custody: “I did what they said I did, but I’m not who they say I am.” A thoroughly Jesu-centric spirituality stokes the central metaphor for Boyle’s ministry: kinship. One relates differently to a brother or sister than to a neighbor. As a Lutheran theologian, I take note.

[14] A final, brief look through a Jesuit lens: Both Lutheran theology and Ignatian spirituality approach discipleship as a calling or vocation. For Lutherans disciples are called to a place, where they faithfully do the works of their calling, serving the neighbor in their various roles. Because neighbors share the space of the neighborhood, a place-based notion of calling fits.

[15] But Ignatian spirituality calls disciples to a path, not a particular neighborhood, and they are always in the process of discerning the way forward. Ignatius himself signed his letters “Ignazio, peregrino,” Ignatius, the pilgrim. Finding the path requires ongoing discernment, and discernment demands sturdy accompaniment and steady listening. Boyle remembers Cesar Chavez’s laser-like attention: “Nothing and no one else existed in that moment but you and whatever you were going on about. I wish I could pull that off” (171). But Boyle does pull it off. These stories are a way of sharing with others his own laser-like attention and abiding love for and with the homies. We’re all richer for being invited to join the family.

[16] Finding God in all things, a Jesu-centric spirituality, and vocation as path: these are fresh dimensions to a mystery that draws us all forward. As a Lutheran theologian, I take note. And I highly recommend to all you theologians and ethicists out there Greg Boyle’s new book.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).