Barking to the Choir
Simon & Schuster
Published November 14, 2017
About Barking to the Choir
In a moving example of unconditional love in difficult times, the Jesuit priest and bestselling author of TATTOOS ON THE HEART, Gregory Boyle, shares what three decades of working with gang members in Los Angeles has taught him about faith, compassion, and the enduring power of kinship.
In his first book, TATTOOS ON THE HEART: THE POWER OF BOUNDLESS COMPASSION, Gregory Boyle introduced us to Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention program in the world. Critics hailed that book as an “astounding literary and spiritual feat” (Publishers Weekly) that is “destined to become a classic of both urban reportage and contemporary spirituality” (Los Angeles Times). Now, after the successful expansion of Homeboy Industries, Boyle returns with BARKING TO THE CHOIR to reveal how compassion is transforming the lives of gang members.
In a nation deeply divided and plagued by poverty and violence, BARKING TO THE CHOIR offers a snapshot into the challenges and joys of life on the margins. Sergio, arrested at nine, in a gang by twelve, and serving time shortly thereafter, now works with the substance-abuse team at Homeboy to help others find sobriety. Jamal, abandoned by his family when he tried to attend school at age seven, gradually finds forgiveness for his schizophrenic mother. New father Cuco, who never knew his own dad, thinks of a daily adventure on which to take his four-year-old son. These former gang members uplift the soul and reveal how bright life can be when filled with unconditional love and kindness.
This book is guaranteed to shake up our ideas about God and about people with a glimpse at a world defined by more compassion and fewer barriers. Gently and humorously, BARKING TO THE CHOIR invites us to find kinship with one another and reconvinces us all of our own goodness.
I read this book after TATTOOS ON THE HEART and before reading Fr. Boyle’s third book, THE WHOLE LANGUAGE, but my reviews are out of order.. My calendar got a bit out of control this season.
The title of BARKING TO THE CHOIR comes from a conversation Fr. Boyle had with one of the employees at Homeboy Industries. He had to talk to him about his attitude, and the guy responded telling him he was “barking to the choir,” sort of a mashup of “barking up the wrong tree” and “preaching to the choir.”
The book features other fun stories like that, where homies use the wrong word or create their own phrases for things. Sometimes they end up being hilarious and other times add some fresh insight. There’s a great balance of humor and heart in this book, just as there was in Boyle’s debut.
In this book we get even more stories about kids that Fr. Boyle watched grow up and stories about their lives and how working at Homeboy Industries changed them. The book isn’t strictly about that, though.
Many chapters bring a focus to the way that these former gang members’ lives changed the people around them for better, too, including Fr. Boyle himself. He talks about the importance of showing up and being open when working with the poor. You don’t show up expecting to make changes and be the person giving the advice and support. You show up prepared to receive. That hit me pretty deep, too. I think it cuts straight to our motives when we try to help others and gives a great way to check those.
Another thing that really stuck with me is from a story he related about an interview with Anderson Cooper. In the interview, Cooper told him that people say he’s naïve, that the homies take advantage of him. Fr. Boyle responds with something like, “how can they take advantage when I’m giving it freely?”
That made me think a lot, too. Sometimes I talk myself out of doing something for someone because I’m worried about what their motives are or what might happen. And it’s not bad to consider those things and be aware. But I guess choosing to be in a position where you show love because you’ve decided to rather than because someone deserves it is another concept I’m really wrestling with.
In the midst of Covid, I feel like there have been a lot of conversations about how much empathy or patience or compassion some people deserve, especially if it seems like they’ve disregarded safety or other guidance. I don’t have all the answers there. It’s a super complicated question. I know that I’ve decided sometimes I will respond with kindness because that’s who I am (or who I want to be!). Sometimes my response doesn’t have anything to do with the other person’s behavior. So I guess this book has challenged me to apply that idea a little more broadly or in different circumstances.
I’m excited to read Fr. Boyle’s next book. I recommend them to anyone interested in the intersection of faith and social justice or in gang intervention programs.
Recommended for Ages 14 up.
Father Boyle tells stories about white, Latinx, and Black gang members and former gang members.
Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used pretty frequently. Some crude language used infrequently.
The book centers on the idea of kinship from a Christian perspective and talks a lot about who God is (loving and compassionate) based on the Bible. There are some (positive) references to other faiths and beliefs.
Brief descriptions of abuse and gang violence.
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