I recently started reading Gregory Boyle’s excellent Tattoos on the Heart, a memoir of his powerful ministry in Pico-Aliso, a low-income area in L.A. dominated by gangs. So far, it’s full of incredible stories about the action of grace upon those who had spent years cultivating facades of toughness and independence, almost as a matter of survival. Boyle, a Jesuit, and the grace-brimming adults (predominantly women) of his community find, through the love they show, an inside look at the hearts of the ‘homies’ they befriend. My favorite vignette from the first chapter is below:

At Camp Paige, a county detention facility near Glendora, I was getting to know fifteen-year-old Rigo, who was getting ready to make his first communion. The Catholic volunteers had found him a white shirt and black tie. We still had some fifteen minutes before the other incarcerated youth would join us for Mass in the gym, and I’m asking Rigo the basic stuff about his family and his life.

“Oh,” he says, “[my dad is] a heroin addict and never really been in my life. Used to always beat my ass. Fact, he’s in prison right now. Barely ever lived with us.”

Rigo then recounts some trouble he’d gotten into at school, one day in the fourth grade, and his dread on coming home to report it:

“When I got home, my jefito was there. He was hardly ever there. My dad says, ‘Why they send you home?’ And cuz my dad always beat me, I said, ‘If I tell you, promise you won’t hit me?’ He just said, ‘I’m your father. ‘Course I’m not gonna hit you.’ So I told him.”

Rigo is caught short in the telling. He begins to cry, and in moments he’s wailing and rocking back and forth. I put my arm around him. He is inconsolable. When he is able to speak and barely so, he says only, “He beat me with a pipe… with… a pipe.”

When Rigo composes himself, I ask, “And your mom?” He points some distance from where we are to a tiny woman standing by the gym’s entrance.

“That’s her over there.” He pauses for a beat, “There’s no one like her.” Again, some slide appears in his mind, and a thought occurs.

“I’ve been locked up for more than a year and a half. She comes to see me every Sunday. You know how many buses she takes every Sunday—to see my sorry ass?”

Then quite unexpectedly he sobs with the same ferocity as before. Again, it takes him some time to reclaim breath and an ability to speak. Then he does, gasping through his tears. “Seven buses… she takes… seven… buses. Imagine.”

How, then, to imagine the expansive heart this God— greater than [our conception of] God— who takes seven buses, just to arrive at us. We settle sometimes for less than intimacy with God, when all God longs for is this solidarity with us. In Spanish, when you speak of your great friend, you describe the union and kinship as being de uña y mugre—our friendship is like the fingernail and the dirt under it. Our image of who God is and what’s on God’s mind is more tiny than it is troubled. It trips more on our puny sense of God than over conflicting creedal statements or theological considerations.

The desire of God’s heart is immeasurably larger than our imaginations can conjure.