May 24, 2017 — Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, was awarded the University of Notre Dame’s 2017 Laetare Medal — the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics — at the university’s commencement ceremony on May 21.
John J. Brennan, chairman of Notre Dame’s board of trustees, told Fr. Boyle it was given to him “to recognize and praise you … for your 30 years and more of service in the gang-riven barrios of East Los Angeles. … You have exemplified the ancient imperative at the wellspring of a faith ever new: ‘Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw forth love.’”
Fr. Boyle founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles in 1988, and it is now the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world.
“As a fledgling Jesuit, you learned from Ignatius ‘to see Jesus standing in a lowly place,’ and to that lowly place, that scourged, graffiti-scarred, inner-city conflict zone in and around Dolores Mission Church, you went to meet Him, to embrace and be embraced by your outcast, wounded and garishly tattooed Lord,” said Brennan.
After receiving the medal, Fr. Boyle delivered an impassioned speech that elicited laughter and tears from the crowd.
“You know, what Martin Luther King says about church could well be said about your time here at Notre Dame,” he said. “‘It’s not the place you’ve come to, it’s the place you go from,’ and you go from here to create a community of kinship such that God, in fact, might recognize it. You imagine with God a circle of compassion and then you imagine nobody standing outside that circle. You go from here to dismantle the barriers that exclude.”
Fr. Boyle said there is only one way to get rid of those barriers: go where the joy is, which is at the margins.
“If you stand at the margins, that’s the only way they’ll get erased, and you stand with the poor, and the powerless and the voiceless. You stand with those whose dignity has been denied, and you stand with those whose burdens are more than they can bear, and you will go from here and have this exquisite privilege once in a while to be able to stand with the easily despised and the readily left out, with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop, and with the disposable, so the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”
In closing, Fr. Boyle told the graduates, “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins but only in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”