A small group I’m in has been reading Father Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, which is based on Boyle’s 25-plus years of work with gang members in East Los Angeles. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit enterprise that provides jobs, training, counseling and hope to gang members who are trying to turn around their lives.
In the next-to-last chapter, Boyle grapples with what constitutes “success” in his ministry. In the gritty Pico-Aliso area of LA where he works, gang shootings, poverty and pain are commonplace. Boyle wonders if he has made a difference by the standards of the business world. He can’t really point to a dramatic improvement in outcomes. After all, this is a community that is constantly upended by violence and death, and he has presided over the funerals of 168 murdered gang members. But as he amply demonstrates in his book, success is not always measured by results.
Sometimes success is just reaching out to another human being and reminding them that they matter.
Case in point: The other day, I found myself at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale, VA. I was between meetings and needed a place to check emails and do some work on my laptop. It was after school, and the place was humming with activity. Here and there, I saw kids being tutored. Right next to me, an older high school student was helping a younger one do his math homework.
A couple of tables away, an elderly woman sat in a wheelchair. Next to her was a young woman. From time to time, I could hear the older woman’s voice, which was firm and full of purpose. At one point, I heard her say to the young woman, “No one should have to endure that kind of hardship in their life.”
It became clear to me that the young woman has having some financial difficulties and was being counseled by the older woman. “You need not worry any more,” the older woman said. “I will help you. I will make sure your daughter has what she needs.” I heard her matter-of-fact instructions to the young woman to open a savings account for her daughter and that she would deposit money into the account.
At the end of their conversation, the older woman asked, “Do you know why I am doing this for you?” There was silence. “Can you guess?” Again, silence. Then came the clincher: “I am doing this for you because you matter. You matter.”
A few minutes later, I looked up and the two were gone. I had to wonder if the conversation even took place. It seemed so out of place for a library in affluent Fairfax County.
On the surface, two women from different backgrounds and different generations met at a public library. I suspect that they had very little in common, yet their lives intersected and they were both enriched. As Boyle notes in Tattoos on the Heart, success is when we see in others what they at first cannot see in themselves—and then we help them discover that they have value and their lives matter.
Boyle talks about breaking down the barriers of jurisdiction and building kinship. This can only happen when we’re willing to step out of our own world and see with new eyes. “Close both eyes; see with the other one,” he says. “Then, we are no longer saddled by the burden of our persistent judgments, our ceaseless withholding, our constant exclusion. Our sphere has widened, and we find ourselves, quite unexpectedly, in a new, expansive location, in a place of endless acceptance and infinite love.”
Now, that’s success.