Words That Sustain Me: Reflections on “Tattoos on the Heart” – part 2

Chapter 2. Dis-Grace.

This chapter was a tuff one. Much to my shame, I have been the one who has mistaken another’s suffering for an interruption. And I have been like Carmen, a disgrace to the people who loved me the most. I was a disgrace to my parents, most especially, for living a life that led me to being sent to death row. I know about disgrace and I know about shame. Father Greg quotes John Bradshaw who said, “That shame is the root of all addictions.” And G says that in the face of all this, the call is to allow the painful shame of others to have a purchase on our lives.

Not fix the pain, but feel it. I was all this until I was redeemed and called by the Lord, and thereby able to drop this unbearable load from my shoulders. Finally being the man of God my parents raised me to be.

Lefty’s story of all he had to endure touched me deeply. I wholeheartedly agree with Father Greg when he says that part of the spirit dies a little each time it’s asked to carry more than its weight in terror, violence, betrayal — trauma. Trauma is what all death row prisoners are forced to experience, sometimes even internalizing this shame, disgrace and sin. It’s interesting how Father Greg puts his finger on the crux of the issue – too often people think that shame and sin happen to someone else, not themselves. This was how G could mistake Carmen for an interruption. But it is precisely within the contour of one’s shame (we all have it!) that one is summoned to fullness. He also shares these truths with us, “The self cannot survive without love, and the self starved of love dies. And guilt, is feeling bad about your actions, while shame is feeling bad about yourself. Failure, embarrassment, weakness, overwhelming worthlessness, and feeling less than — all permeating the soul.”

I remember having problems identifying my emotions. I’d feel shame and disgrace about my situation, and would say, ” screw it, I don’t care” and run from the emotion. What I didn’t understand was not caring is hopelessness. Praise God, that I’ve rid myself of toxic shame.

Sniper, who was named Napoleon, story touched my heart. Sniper told Father Greg that when his mom wasn’t mad at him she would call him, “Napito.” There’s something about the name your mom calls us when she’s not pissed off at us. My mom had a similar name she called me, “Chalito.” Little Charlie. Who doesn’t want to be called by their name?

Back to the lethal absence of hope that Speedy talked about when he said he didn’t care if he lived or died. Which allowed him to put his life at risk with crazy stunts. And how, with just a little bit of tender mercy like a near stranger caring if Speedy lived or died was rubbing salve on the wounds of his hopeless heart. How much better would the world be if we could all do that for each other?

Now for the quote:

“Out of our disfigured misshapen selves, so darkened by shame and disgrace, indeed the Lord comes to us disguised as ourselves. And we don’t grow into this — we just pay better attention. The, “no matter whatness” of God dissolves the toxicity of shame and fills us with tender mercy. Favorable, finally, and called by name — by the your mom uses when she’s not pissed off. “

Chapter 3. Compassion.

I loved the homie’s definitions for sympathy, empathy and compassion. Compassion is God. In, “The Chosen,” a series about the Gospel and the life of Jesus Christ, my favorite aspect about the show is witnessing Jesus’ compassion for the people. They’re lost, suffering and in pain and He’s moved time and time again with pity, with compassion. Jesus’ compassion had room for everybody. Father Greg talks about the highest honing of compassion is being hospitable to victim and victimizer both. That’s deep, something I can barely wrap my mind around. And, that loving the your enemy, your victimizer is not better, it’s just harder. The reason why we try to achieve this is because it resembles more the, “expansive compassion” of God. To seek, “a compassion that can stand in awe at WHAT the poor (and rejected, outcast, marginalized) have to carry rather than stand in judgement on HOW they carry it.” If you can manage the WHAT rather than the HOW, you can befriend a homie, or support and love a death row prisoner, through compassion.

Looney’s story is great. He gets out of probation camp and after Michelle and Emily welcome him home, project style, they kill the fatted pepperoni and welcome home the prodigal Looney! Looney can’t believe the delight they have in his return.

The compassion G has for him moves Looney to tears, and Father Greg shares with him the truth of his situation. Looney is not in a deep dark hole, but in a tunnel and if he’ll just keep walking, the light will show up. The Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg defined sinner as, “outcast.” In Jesus’ time this was a social grouping of people who felt wholly unacceptable. The world had deemed them disgraceful, shameful, and this toxic shame was brought inside and given home in the outcast/sinner. Jesus’ strategy was a simple one : He eats with them. Precisely to those paralyzed in this toxic shame, Jesus says, “I will eat with you.” He goes where love had not yet arrived and through the act of eating with them He rendered the outcast acceptable. As Father Greg teaches us, Jesus, through being one with the sinners, He WAS an outcast. Because Christ’s strategy was standing in the right place, where the broken, rejected, outcast and those relegated to the margins stood.

I loved G’s illustration of Jesus being in a house so packed that no one can come through the door. So the people break open the roof to lows the paralytic man through, so Jesus can heal him. I, like Father Greg, think there is something significant about ripping the roof off the place, and those on the outside are being let in.


“Compassion isn’t just about feeling pain of others, it’s about bringing them towards yourself. If we love what God loves, then in compassion, margins get erased. ‘Being compassionate as God is compassionate,’ means dismantling of the barriers that exclude.”

Chapter 4. Water, Oil, Flame.

Here, we hear the story of two brothers, George and Cisco, and how Cisco is killed. Father Greg tells George his brother was killed during his baptism. G describes the manner in which George takes the news, living through hell and not losing hope. I know from personal experience what that’s like, choosing to hold on to hope and faith, being resilient, moving into the future. I agree with Father Greg when he says that the “delivery system for resilience” is having other compassionate souls willing to allow their heart break with you. Forming the community of unconditional love, representing the, “no matter whatness” of God. This is how I’ve had appeal after appeal denied and still have not given up hope. I have acquired resilience.

Miguel’s story was great. He was an orphan who invited over five other orphans homies just like him from his work crew for Christmas and they cooked a turkey, “ghetto style!” Father Greg was curious about Miguel’s resilience and asked him how did he do it? After all the suffering he’d been through, how was he a good person? Miguel answered, “I always suspected there was something of goodness in me but I just couldn’t find it. Until one day, I found it here, in my heart… I found goodness. And ever since that day, I’ve known who I was, and now nothing can touch me.”

I too, through the Lord, have found goodness in my heart like Miguel, now nothing can touch me ever again. This goodness is the antidote to the lethal absence of hope that so many homies and souls on death row battle against. Once you find it, let me tell you, nothing can touch you!

Father Greg tells us about the homies visiting Homeboy Industries, just to get their “fix” of love. Man, do I feel that! I don’t know how it happened, but I turned out just like my father in that regard. He used to say that going to church was his “fix.” I used to wonder what in the heck is that old man was talking about?! Now I know. Our worship services on life row are where I get my fix. Of love of the Lord, and where I embody the highest, most spiritually enlightened form of myself. There’s nothing else that can make me feel that.

Favorite quote:

“Jesus says, ‘you are the light of the world.’ I like even more what He doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, ‘One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you’ll be light.’ He doesn’t say, ‘If you play by the rules, cross your T’s and dot your I’s, then maybe you’ll become light.’ It is the truth of who you are, waiting on YOU to discover it.”