Review of Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, by Gregory Boyle

My son gave me Boyle’s first book, Tattoos on the Heart, a few years ago, and I loved it. When I heard he’d written a second, I knew I had to read it.

Barking to the Choir is more of the same. I laughed and cried on nearly every page.

Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, founded Homeboy Industries, part business and part ministry, in 1988 as a way to reach out to gang members in Los Angeles. It is the largest gang intervention, rehab, and reentry program in the world, and it’s wildly successful. Boyle sees the homies as noble, compassionate, and valuable and treats them as such without judgment. Over time, he learns each client’s story, and always finds deep childhood damage, such as abuse, abandonment, neglect, or witnessing murder. He says no one joins a gang for the camaraderie; they might tell you that, but they join because they see no other alternative — they join because they are ready to die.

Boyle recruits many of his clients from prisons. He visits, and hands out his cards to the convicts, telling them to come see him when they get out. After an intake interview, he tells them they start their eighteen-month program the next day. They will get paid better than minimum wage. They will also be working alongside members of rival gangs.

Everyone starts out in the janitorial division. From there, they can move on to the bakery, the café, or the tattoo removal service. They learn skills; they create products; they earn a living while being of service; they are treated with dignity and treat others with respect. By the time their eighteen months are over, the placement department has connected them with a new employer. And they’ve cut ties with their gang and had their gang tats removed.

The book contains stories of experiences that Boyle has had working with the homies. Some are poignant, some are humorous. But in each, Boyle sees the transformational power of acceptance. Jesus befriended people on the outskirts of society — the tax collector, the prostitute, the cripple, the poor. Doesn’t he call us to do the same?

Former elementary general music teacher. Wife, and mother of five. Blogging about the arts and the creative process at