So . . . I did a thing. I got a tattoo. On my face.
Some of the gang members in our community have a teardrop tattooed under their eye. For some, it represents the loss of someone they loved. It can also mean that a person was raped in prison and then “branded” as a victim forever after. But for most, the teardrop is a symbol of having killed someone. This is the widely understood meaning in our Community of Hope at Joe’s Addiction.
Over the years, as we have learned the teachings of Jesus and tried to follow his example, we have become committed to enemy love. And I’ll tell ya, it is not easy. Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” is the most difficult thing he asked us to do.
For my gang friends, loving a member of a rival gang or a person of a difference race or resisting the urge for revenge are places where the rubber meets the road in this “love thing.”
As pastor at Joe’s Addiction, I am often the one who teaches the words of Jesus to these who are steeped in violence. I am the one who issues the oft repeated call to love, to forgive, to believe the best, to give a second (or third, or fourth or 70th chance). I am often the one reminding people in our Community that this is how we live. And I am the one who most often is modeling for them how to do it.
Today I gave $2 for bus fare to a man in our Community who is currently harming others and causing a lot of fear in our homeless camp. I didn’t want to. I feel mad at him right now for being mean to my other friends. But it’s hot . . . and he had to get to a probation meeting seven miles away . . . and because love is kind . . . I gave him $2. Sigh. Several in our Community noticed and wondered why. We had another talk about loving people who don’t deserve it. And we agreed together that I had done the right thing.
Yet, to be honest with you, loving ex-cons who have murdered, raped and stolen is not so hard for me. Loving people who steal from me is not that hard either. But loving people whose ideology is different from mine, especially those who have “ghosted” me for not believing the way they do, is incredibly difficult. And honesty, much of the time, I don’t do it well.
But we are committed to the Better Way. The Jesus Way of life. The Way of Love.
A month ago, I decided to try out an idea. I put a stamp of a heart under my left eye, where gang members place their teardrop tattoo. I wondered what the folks at Joe’s would think. The first day I wore it, a young man who rarely attends church at Joe’s, runs drugs for a gang and is regularly caught up in violence noticed and asked me what it was about. I asked him what he thought. He said, “Well, usually people put a teardrop there, and that means you’ve killed someone . . . but yours is a heart . . . a heart means love, so yours means love not killing? . . . love for people instead of killing them? . . . like loving your enemy?” Exactly.
I’ve had the same conversation numerous times in the last month. So this week I announced that I decided to get it permanently tattooed. One of the guys said, “Really?” I told him, “Yep. I’m ready to make a permanent statement that I am going to love my enemies.” He smiled and said, “Then I’m gonna do it too.” Another one stood up and chimed in, “You’re our O.G., if you do it, I’ll do it.” Another stood. You could feel the excitement, the energy rising in the room. He said, “I want one too.” The first one then said, “We’re gonna make a new gang: the Love Gang!”
A tattoo on my face pretty much seals the deal on my departure from my fundamentalist, religious upbringing. Perhaps it is a “leave and cleave” kind of thing for me. This heart also symbolizes my standing in solidarity with my Community at Joe’s Addiction. For eleven years, these precious people have welcomed me into their world, into their neighborhood, into their homes, into their lives. They have become my family. My best, most loyal and supportive friends. I have experienced more love, more forgiveness and more tolerance for my character flaws in this Community than anywhere else in my life. I am humbled and so grateful. So this tattoo on my face is my way of saying I’m all in, no reservations, no turning back. What started as “me” for “them,” really has become “we.”
So . . . I guess I should say, we did a thing.”