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Could I give away my possessions?


6:00 A.M. EDT August 22, 2011 | EL PASO, Texas (UMNS)

The Rev. Lorenza Andrade-Smith (right) visits with Jody, a homeless man who is taking shelter inside a box culvert beneath a busy street in El Paso, Texas. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.
The Rev. Lorenza Andrade-Smith (right) visits with Jody, a homeless man who is taking shelter inside a box culvert beneath a busy street in El Paso, Texas.
UMNS photos by Mike DuBose. View in Photo Gallery

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As I struggled while climbing down a narrow dirt path toward the bottom of a rocky hill, I asked myself whether I could give up all of my possessions.

We were trying to get under the bridge, a path accessible only from the sidewalk through a makeshift entryway covered by bushes.

I was not wearing the right kind of shoes for this terrain. It was a steep, rocky hill where the Rev. Lorenza Andrade-Smith took us. Mike DuBose, our United Methodist News Service photographer; Pamela Barragán, our volunteer driver; and I were headed for a quick visit to the shelter that Lorenza, a United Methodist pastor, is sharing with her homeless friends beneath an underpass in the downtown El Paso area. It was hot!

Could I sell my house, my car and all my possessions and dare to live on the streets? Lorenza has been doing that for the last six months. Three months ago, United Methodist Bishop James E. Dorff of the Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference appointed Lorenza to lead a ministry with the poor and marginalized, advocating for systemic changes.

She chose to take a leave of absence from her church and conference duties and to renounce all of her possessions, including her home, her car and her salary.

I ran into Lorenza in El Paso where we both were attending the annual meeting of MARCHA, Methodists Associated Representing the Cause of Hispanic-Americans. I asked her when she would start her new ministry appointment. “I am in my new job, and this is my ministry,” she said. “I am taking a vow of poverty, and I am dedicating myself to learn to live on the streets for three years to understand the plight of the homeless and the needy.”

I was speechless. I thought she was going to do this homeless experience for three to six months before starting her office work for the poor. “Why?” I asked her.

"I have to live it to understand it," she responded. "I think I could not work or advocate on their behalf if I did not know what it is to live it."

She couldn't see it any other way, she said.

She could read my face while I struggled to try to ask the right questions to understand why she chose this path.

Smith sits with Lester beneath the bridge. The United Methodist pastor has taken a vow of poverty and renounced her home, her car and her salary for three years.
Smith sits with Lester beneath the bridge. The United Methodist pastor has taken a vow of poverty and renounced her home, her car and her salary for three years. View in Photo Gallery

An invitation to visit

She asked me if I wanted to visit a homeless group she met in an area of downtown El Paso.

“Sure,” I said.

The shelter was near where we were meeting. Lorenza pointed to Pamela and told her she could park in the nearby McDonald’s parking lot.

We had to walk a short distance.

“I need to go first and make sure they agree for visitors to come to their place,” she told us. We saw her quickly go down the path and disappear. Later, she emerged and signaled for us to come down.

“Watch your step. Be careful,” she said. Mike wore walking shoes; he was smart. He went first. I was next, thinking Pamela would stay behind since she was wearing high heels. No, she wanted to go. Pamela is a lay leader at La Puerta Abierta United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minn., and a police officer. We all made it down to what seemed to be a dry riverbed.

I met Lorenza when she still was in seminary. She looked so young, with a determined demeanor, which I’ve learned to admire. She went to serve at Westlawn United Methodist Church in San Antonio. Soon she was outspoken about issues of injustice in her community. She joined other groups outside her church and other conferences. She vowed to be anywhere she is called to join hands and raise a voice for justice.

Currently she has two charges, at Travis Park United Methodist Church with the Southwest Conference, and at La Trinidad United Methodist Church with Rio Grande Conference.

Late last year, she was arrested after refusing to leave U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson’s San Antonio office. She had joined students in support of the immigration-reform legislation known as the DREAM Act, which would allow children of undocumented immigrants who come to the United States as small children to continue their studies and attend college.

We walked down the dry riverbed to something that looked like a concrete vault where we found three homeless men who seemed happy to see Lorenza as they came to greet us. We said “hello” to Jody and Lester and started an informal conversation.

It was awkward, but soon I regained my composure and started asking questions of two of the three men. The third man preferred to listen to music and asked us to respect his privacy.

The site looked like a huge, empty airplane vault space filled with dirt and rocks. There were few cleared patches. This was home to Lester and Jody. It would be home for Lorenza tonight as she demonstrated how the mat she carried and the thin blanket she used — plus a ski pole for protection — are plenty for her. She had only a backpack and her cell phone, and she uses her little “Eeyore” plush donkey toy as a pillow. She said she feels more fortunate than her homeless acquaintances.

Smith carries a rolled sleeping mat, a stuffed donkey and a hiking staff on her journey.
Smith carries a rolled sleeping mat, a stuffed donkey and a hiking staff on her journey. View in Photo Gallery

‘Quieter than my bench’

“At least I can get to sleep in a bed from time to time,” she said noting that the others cannot. “Here, it is much quieter than my bench in San Antonio where it is in the open near the Alamo.” She has been ticketed by the police for using a bench in the park as her bed.

Lorenza comfortably sat and talked with Lester and Jody. Mike started to take some photographs. They told us several short, random stories. I asked Lester how long he had been living on the streets. “Ever since I was 15,” he said.

Lester showed us his area and his favorite spot, which looked like a mud bed covered with a raggedy straw mat. I noticed his possessions seemed to be a small bag and, perhaps, a blanket.

Jody talked about the difficulty finding medical assistance. He remembered when a friend had gangrene in one of his legs and was in great pain. It was time to call an ambulance, so Jody went for help and asked someone to call 911. The person refused, saying it was illegal. Jody said he responded that it was illegal not to assist someone in danger and he would report it. The man eventually called 911.

Curious passers-by peeped over the bridge. They kept walking and turning back. They had questioning looks.

As we headed back to the car, I felt a myriad of emotions.

I felt blessed while trying not to compare my circumstance to the situation of the people I had just seen. I have plenty, perhaps more than I need.

I also thought about Lorenza. What she is doing goes beyond what my “material girl” mind can comprehend. I felt a deep sadness because I feel so tiny compared to this petite great woman.

I couldn’t hide an enormous sense of admiration as I waved goodbye.

I am in awe of this fragile-looking but strong woman who has embarked on a mysterious journey of renunciation in solidarity with those on the margins of society. With empathy, she now lives on the streets trying to learn how it really is to go without.

I wasn’t feeling hungry or hot at that moment.

* Bachus is editor of el Intérprete magazine and director of Spanish resources.

News media contact: Amanda Bacchus, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Showing 7 comments

  • BradR 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I'm so inspired.  Yes, that is true NMex, we need people who are able to support ministries like this with their financial support and other means.  But also, I can only imagine what this is doing for those who come in contact with Lorenza.  Doing this, they know she really cares.  Yes, the homeless are very needy and lack most things we all take for granted.  Without people like you and your wife, the homeless would lack so much more.  But who is better apt to effect change than someone on the 'inside', like Lorenza.  Maybe she can make a difference the rest of us could only dream of.  If they trust her and believe what she says, first she will lead them to Christ. But, this might also give her an opportunity to break this cycle of homelessness with at least a few people.  She is following Jesus down onto the streets and teaching us to do the same.  God Bless you Lorenza.
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  • Maureen 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    There is no ministry like hands-on ministry. Lorenza is doing amazing things for which I am proud to call her "friend." How many of the rest of us would do likewise? God is with you wherever you journey dear, and Jesus loves you kiddo! My prayers for your selfless ministry continue.
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  • ronwhitlatch 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Thank you, Amanda, for writing from your heart.  I am most impressed by Lorenza's sincerity and dedication to her calling.  She is an inspiration to all of us.  I pray for her, the homeless, and ourselves that we may also respond to God's call.
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  • dmh8181 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    NMex, I hear what you're saying but some may be called to do just what this pastor has chosen to do.  According to the Gospel accounts Jesus didn't tell everyone he encountered to sell all they had and give to the poor, only the rich young ruler.  It's her calling, not yours or mine, but that doesn't make it misguided.  As for the rest of us, her vow of poverty reminds us to question how much of ourselves we invest in material things.  Does our attachment to material things rise to the level of idolatry?  A worthy question for any follower of Christ.  And can we really understand what life is like for those who are homeless without living it ourselves?  Somehow I don't think so.  I am passionate about VIM experiences, but I always know I can go home to my bed, my health insurance plan, and my salary.  Too many in this world can't, and I don't think I have much of a clue about what life is like for those who can't rely on such gifts.
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  • Lee 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    God bless you!
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  • NMex 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    On one hand the pastor is really living like the homeless and she will get an education (if she doesn't get killed or seriously hurt first).  Her intentions are noble no doubt but are they misguided in my opinion.  As a pastor with a salary she can be a part of the ministry that provides for the homeless not only by giving money but also by counseling.  As it is now she is she just another homeless person?  My wife and I are involved in the homeless ministry at our church and what we really can provide is food and clothing for them.  If we quit our jobs and joined the homeless to get a better understanding of them then the church would not have nearly as much food and clothing to hand out to the homeless.  I know I sound mean but if you have the ability to make money - make money and give generously and joyfully to those who are less fortunate.  Don't study it to death!
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  • HHH_AAA 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    my prayers are with you Lorenza...you are doing something amazing.
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