Father Greg Boyle is in the business of erasing the past. A Jesuit priest who is the founder and director of "Homeboy Industries" in East Los Angeles, Father Boyle has put together a team of physicians trained in the laser technology of tattoo removal. The team is part of a program that takes the tattoos of ex-gang members and wipes the slate clean. For many, it is as crucial a service as it is merciful.
Gang-related tattoos prevent many former gang members from getting jobs or advancing in work. For others, the markings critically impinge on mental health or put them in serious danger on the streets. There is no fee or community service required to receive the tattoo removal offered by Homeboy Industries. It is strictly a gift—a gift that is perhaps a modern look at Christ washing the feet of his friends. Currently, there is a waiting list of over a thousand names.
For those involved, the spiritual imagery is often compelling. The seeming permanence of a gang tattoo fosters the attitude that the gang's claim is also permanent. It is a mark of ownership as much as identity. The emotional consequence is that it seems a part of you that can never be shaken. I suspect some of us have felt like this with past mistakes, actions whose mark we cannot shake off, decisions embedded into our existence like permanent tattoos on bodies longing to forget.
It's not hard to see how profound the erasing of such marks could be in the life of a former gang member. The life marked by Christ is similarly altered. Like former gang members who have had the marks of a former life removed, so our sins are blotted out by Christ. They are remembered no longer.
To those holding on to the scarred markings of former sin God would say: "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more" (Isaiah 43:25). Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Like the unmarked ex-gang members among us, we are made into something new.
One of the curious things about the growing list of people interested in laser tattoo removal is that Father Boyle is straightforward about the procedure. The process of tattoo removal is extremely painful. Patients describe the laser procedure as feeling like hot grease on their skin. And yet the list grows, each name representing a life that longs to be free and is willing to endure the pain to seize it.
Followers of the Christian faith have described God's work in our lives as the "refiner's fire." Removing the impurities we have embedded into our lives is at times quite uncomfortable. But like a child that trusts her mother enough to endure the pain of having a splinter removed or the young man who undergoes the burning process of removing a gang tattoo, we are freed by skillful hands. The Great Physician is sometimes a surgeon. But when we look at God through the refining fires of God's presence, we know that it was well worth putting our name on the list (whether it was our doing or God's in the first place). "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." At his table, we are made new.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.