The “Jesus is my Homeboy” T-shirt is a fashion trend that peaked in the mid-2000s, when celebrities like Jessica Simpson, Pamela Anderson, Ben Affleck, Ashton Kutcher, and Brad Pitt could be spotted wearing it. I remember seeing classmates in high school, Christian and non-Christian, wearing the tee. I never got on that bandwagon, though, because I never quite understood what the shirt was trying to communicate. I feel comfortable calling Jesus my Savior, my Lord, my Friend, even. But my “homeboy”? What does that even mean?
It wasn’t until recently that I found out this shirt has a back story. That the familiar image that so many people don (or dismiss) without a thought was actually born of a moment of trauma and grace.
This according to jesusismyhomeboy.org: In a parking lot in Los Angeles in the 1980s, a man named Van Zan Frater was assaulted by a group of young gang members. They beat him to the ground, and one of the boys held a gun to Frater’s head. “Kill him, homeboy!” they shouted. Frater prayed to God to save him. In a desperate attempt to find some way to connect with his attackers, Frater, adapting their language, said, “Jesus is my homeboy, and he’s your homeboy too!” For whatever reason, the boy let him go.
After that near-death experience, Frater designed the now-iconic “Jesus is my Homeboy” image. The man with the upturned palms and the gentle face is a Jesus without race or creed, he said. He’s a person you can count on to stand with you, no matter the situation. Frater had the image printed onto T-shirts, which he sold in a local park. It even became the official image of the peace conferences held for gangs in the late 1980s.
During the 1992 LA race riots, though, the printing shop containing the silk screen of the image was looted. A decade later, the silk screen reappeared in an odds-and-ends store; Teenage Millionaire (an online store, later a brick-and-mortar one, that sells trendy tees) entrepreneur Chris Hoy thought the design would sell well, so he purchased it and then began printing T-shirts and selling them on the Web. The small company made a fortune from the shirt and transformed “Jesus is my Homeboy” from a local movement to a national trend that inspired a whole line of merchandise.
In 2008, Frater sued Teenage Millionaire for copyright infringement. I couldn’t find the outcome of the case, but I suspect that some kind of settlement was reached. Now, if you purchase one of the original shirts from jesusismyhomeboy.com, a portion of the proceeds goes directly to the Jesus Is My Homeboy Foundation to provide free services such as grief counseling and burials for victims of gang violence.
Here’s a timeline for you visual learners:Unfortunately, the Jesus Is My Homeboy Foundation has not responded to my phone message or my two e-mails. I regret that I could not get in touch with Mr. Frater, as I would have liked to have heard his impressions about this whole “Jesus is my Homeboy” phenomenon. I also would have liked to have found out more about his religious beliefs, and what Jesus means to him, and to verify some dates and facts, as I came across inconsistencies on the Web. But alas, it’s been several weeks, and I’ve heard nothing back.
I think what holds me back from sporting the shirt myself is that it’s come to be associated in popular culture with a lax view of Jesus—a casual Jesus-was-a-cool-guy-but-not-much-more attitude. Jesus was a cool guy, and Frater’s story is uplifting. But the theology behind the image is vague, and Frater meant for it to be that way. “He wanted it to be a neutral image with which anyone could identify,” his site says. Hoy, who helped make the image popular, said that the T-shirts “work for everyone, from hipsters to born-again Christians.”
I don’t begrudge people for wearing the T-shirt; in fact, as far as catchphrases go, I can see how this could be a helpful one. Sure, there are people who wear the shirt as a fashion statement, giving little thought to the meaning behind it and thereby cheapening its message, but there are also people who endorse it on a much more personal level, for the spiritual significance it has to them. A homeboy is a boy from your hometown or region. Now, of course Jesus didn’t grow up in Apex, North Carolina, and I’m not from Nazareth. But Jesus did call Earth his home for thirty-three years, which makes us fellow residents. Two thousand years ago, God was born into our neighborhood; he put on human flesh and knew hunger and fatigue and violence and anxiety and confusion and anger and grief. He had the same emotions, temptations, desires, and limitations as we do, and because he grew up alongside of us (or, our predecessors, at least) and shared in our experiences, we feel a special connection to him—this boy from the hood. So, after reflecting on the meaning of the expression “Jesus is my Homeboy,” I’ve come up with this horribly cliché paraphrase: whatever I’m going through, Jesus has been there, and he has my back.
What do you think about the tee? Does it sacrifice clarity for the sake of hipness? Or on the other hand, does it commendably make Jesus more accessible to today’s generation? Would you wear it?