The Whole Language the Power of Extravagant Tenderness

by Gregory Boyle

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



At this time, we are experiencing the same question that Dorothy Day asked when she was eight and lived in San Francisco when the earthquake struck. What she remembered most was the unifying and generous response of everyone in this time of crisis. We are asking and responding the same way now, during the Ukrainian war, that is, why can’t we live this way all the time? It is a good question. Maybe we have been given a new way of seeing more clearly seeing that scarcity is a myth and abundance our newfound truth.


For every one of us, the pandemic didn’t just alter plans, it also torpedoed identity. Who am I, after all, if how I am relational gets toppled? Giving talks presiding at mass in detention facilities, or kicking it in my office with gang members. It all stops and there is grieving to be done. So, you lean into the grief. You allow yourself to be curious about it. This book is the last of his three Power books. Tattoos on the Heat: The Power of Boundless Compassion; Barking to the Choir; The Power of Radical Kinship. Now this one. Life these previous works, the stories, parables and lessons learned in this book are gleaned from my thirty-seven year involvement with gang members and Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehab and reentry program on the planet. Like my other books, there is some theological tree climbing here, with some occasionally half-baked musings.


O’Boyle confesses that he writes like he talks. When he is speaking to a group, He gives some content and ideas until He senses that eyes are starting to glaze over. Then he shifts to a story. He relates that his talks can be scattershot and more from something funny to a moment that is moving Laugh, cry, and change your mind on something. These are always his goals in a keynote address, and they are the same here. He is not the proud owner of an attention span, so that gets reflected as well. He personally likes to change things up, so his assumption is that others feel the same.


Homeboy Industries, along with providing concrete help and a culture of healing and transformation to gang members, also wants to be what the world is ultimately called to become; a community of kinship and a sangha of beloved belonging. Homeboy doesn’t want to simply point something out. He wants to point the way. Not just a solution, but a sign. It points the way to the power of transformation; the holiness of second chances; a commitment to demonize no one; and the power and possibility of redemption. If Homeboy were a volume, you’d to cover your ears. Homeboy Industries remind us that we belong to one another. There is no us and them. Surely, we stand with those left behind, but we also ask, what keeps them behind? Our organization wants to be the front porch of the house we all long to live in, especially in these polarizing, tribal, and divisive times. Homeboy Industries modestly embodies a world of interconnection and relational wholeness. As the homies who now run the place often say, “We are saved by the relationship.”


The usual disclaimers apply to this book as to the previous ones. I don’t mention the names of gangs and I change the names of gang members in the telling of these stories, parables, and snapshots from the barrio. Everything is true and remembered as best as I have been able to recall Ihe will admit to some telescoping of details to the interest of economy, and the merging of moments to be expeditious. I make reference to my years as pastor of DoloresMission Church, as chaplain at Folsom State Prison and to my numerous moments in countless detention facilities.

The Whole Language acknowledges that we are all born into the world wanting the same things, and we are all naked under our clothes. We start from this place, then, of our own unshakable goodness, so we jettison blame and embrace understanding. We see God’s light in everything and thereby choose mysticism over morality. We choose connection, not perfection. We explore the things that help us feel beloved rather than on probation. We want to know the God of love, which is more than knowing the love of God. We long to see the wholeness of things and find.

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