Our parish chapter of the Daughters of the King is reading a book by Fr. Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart. In the book, Boyle speaks to his work in one of the poorest mission communities in the heart of areas of Los Angeles controlled and dominated by gang culture. He has spent his life's work in lifting up people oppressed by multiple systems that deprive them of personal dignity and accepting community. Most of his folk are on the outside, looking in on lives that are not what they should, or could, be. Instead, they are lives dominated by substitutions. In families ripped apart by cycles of addiction and violence, gangs serve as a substitute for a sense of belonging. In communities isolated and segregated from zones of economic and political opportunity, the cultures of extortion, turf wars and drug-based commerce dominate. Into this world, Boyle works to model and build up a community based on the kingdom-teachings of Christ. He works to instill in his people a sense of radical acceptance, unconditional love and most of all....hope on both a personal and at communal levels.
A quote from today's readings is sitting with me today as we work through the readings:
Gangs are bastions of conditional love--one false move, and you find yourself outside. Slights are remembered, errors in judgment held against you forever. If a homie [gang member] doesn't step up to the plate, perform the required duty, he can be relegated to "no good" status. This is a state from which it is hard to recover. Homeboy Industries seeks to be a community of unconditional love. Community will always trump gang any day.Amos and Jesus decry what amounts to that abuse of person and community that groups inflict on folks who are either unwilling or unable to play the game according to the distorted rules formed to exclude, created to expell with prejudice those who fail to conform. Amos names the things that people do to unduly profit from by way of cheating, or exploiting, the basic trust in each other and in God that fidelity to the Law calls for from Israel and Judah. By "making the ephah small and the shekel great" they foster unjust distribution of goods and access to resources for those with "less." Jesus warns his disciples about the "yeast of the Pharisees" who use interpretation of the Law to personal benefit, citing loopholes and easy outs in order to perpetrate a greater wrong under the cloak of righteousness.
We could look at all this behavior and cluck our tongues, wag our fingers and decry "those people who do those sorts of things." We would be in the wrong to choose to assume those sins are exterior to us, provided we are "good" people. The reality is that all of us benefit in some way from unjust systems, from conditional love, from broken ways of being. None of us are above the fray. As Boyle discovers in his service to his community, seeking to foster just systems of unconditional love, it is only when we learn that we have to work from within in order to accomplish change that we begin to show forth the transformations and conversions that Jesus and Amos agitate for in their cautions. When Jesus gives Peter the proverbial keys to the kingdom, he does so with the direction that whatever he unlocks on earth will be unlocked in heaven, and whatever he binds on earth, he binds in heaven. The challenge? To be one who holds the keys in such a way that the doors of the kingdom are open to all....ALL. Open without condition. Open with the invitation to more than belong...but to also be welcomed as beloved, restored, with hope.
That is unconditional love.