by Jenna Olson Popp
I recently finished reading Tattoos on the Heart by Father Greg Boyle, a priest in Los Angeles who works with “homies” (i.e. gang members) to get them out of the strong pull of gangs, prison, and conflict, and guide them into being loving, working, and forgiving members of their communities. There are incredible stories of forgiveness and redemption within the pages of this book alongside stories of lives cut too short or those who cannot seem to accept God’s love for themselves.
A poignant chapter that stood out to me was about “success” – specifically how Fr. Boyle interprets and sees success in his work. Often, he is confronted with questions on numbers: “How many homies have jobs now?” or “What’s the success rate of your program?” All of these leave him wondering what success means in his context and ministry.
We (The Lutheran Center) are often confronted with these questions, too. Having applied to a multitude of grants over the past couple of years, we’ve had to answer many ‘expectations and outcomes’ questions to “prove” that our project and ministry will make good use out of the money they give us.
This puts us in a weird place because we don’t measure our ministry’s success by numbers. We don’t do this work to get “x amount” of convert Lutherans or “y number” of pastors. Those are outcomes, yes, and outcomes that we celebrate and will impact the world. But our real intention in this work is to walk alongside students – to create a welcoming church home and community for them to wrestle and question so they might find how God has called them to do God’s work in the world.
That isn’t measured in numbers. That can’t be explained in a grant as a measurable or predictable outcome. And that also means that there will be “failures.” There will be students- homies – and people with whom we walk who will continue to deny God, be part of a gang, or lead lives of anger. But that should never stop us. This work means we are called to walk with all people, not just the easy ones, not just the ones who will give us the outcomes we’re looking for. As Fr. Greg warns us, “If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.”
Having done over 150 funerals in 20 years of gang members and children he knew and loved, Fr. Greg knows what failure might look like to others. But this is not failure to him. This is presence – God’s presence – in even the most shocking, sad, and sometimes beautiful moments. To him, knowing these homies’ stories and being with them until and through death is success. Solidarity is success.
The LA homie priest says this: “Jesus stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified – whichever came first.” May we do the same: stand with the wandering student, the homeless, the gang member until they are welcomed or until we are put to death – whichever comes first.