Commentary: Lorenza Andrade Smith, homeless pastor, visits east Tennessee
By Annette Spence
The Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith spent
Saturday night, Aug. 18, on the streets
of Knoxville, Tenn. Photo by Dennis Loy
It rained on the night the Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith slept near the railroad tracks in downtown Knoxville.
Instead of waking up to think, “Oh, I wish I could sleep in this morning,” I woke up to think, “Oh, Lorenza is outside.”
The Rev. Dennis Loy also thought of the pastor’s vulnerability as she rested that night in a strange city. He mentioned it in his introductory remarks later that morning at Noe’s Chapel United Methodist Church:
"I was uneasy knowing she was sleeping on the streets last night,” he said. “And then I realized there are people on the streets every night who I don't think about at all. Her appointment is to remind us and join her in this unease."
Smith has been something of a social justice heroine in the United Methodist Church and beyond since June 2011, when she took a vow of poverty to live among and advocate for the poor. With her bishop’s blessing, she sold her car and belongings, refused a salary, and began to unroll her thin bed mat in places that seem anything but restful.
“I have to live it to understand it,” Smith told reporters who sought her out on park benches and under bridges. “I could not work or advocate on their behalf if I did not know what it is to live it.”
Fifteen months into a three-year appointment, she admits that her hazardous life has taken its toll. Yet she toils on, from her home base in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, to the many places she’s invited to speak, meet, or retreat.
Wherever she goes, with few exceptions, she insists on sleeping on the streets in solidarity with her brothers and sisters, celebrating newfound friendships with Facebook photos from her cell phone. (A cell phone and iPad, she has explained, are possession compromises made for the sake of safety and communication.)
It was through Facebook that Smith befriended a few Holston Conference members and decided to come for a brief visit on her way to Kansas for a poverty conference. She arrived in downtown Knoxville at 11 p.m., Aug. 19, on the “dog” -- her term for the Greyhound bus, which she travels on with free passes.
Smith declined my offer for a late-night greeting or assistance at the bus station, but asked for a morning ride to Morristown for Sunday worship. “Not familiar with the area, but hoping to make new friends,” Smith wrote on Facebook.
Later, she posted a photo of where she had slept on gravel near the train tracks. "Rail rocks ... I needed a firm bed last night, so it was perfect!”
At 7 a.m. she texted me that she was waiting “under the bridge on Central Avenue to stay dry.” When I arrived to pick her up, she was invisible at first, huddled under a blanket on the sidewalk.
Smith -- who is 43, petite, and dresses in black or gray -- got up from the sidewalk and placed her compact bag and cart in the trunk. “I would love to sit in the backseat so I can stretch out,” she said. A blanket was already in the backseat, so she pulled it up to her chin and began to chat and answer questions on the way to Morristown.
She looked tired and confessed that she always is. “I take four retreats a year to rest, otherwise, I start to act funny and talk to myself,” she said. Even then, it takes her two nights before she can rest well because she’s always “on edge” on the streets.
In other articles written about her, Smith says she was surprised to discover that sleep deprivation is a draining reality of homelessness. Finding a public restroom is also a nagging challenge. She said she sometimes buys a 99-cent hamburger so she will be allowed to use the bathroom at McDonald’s.
“When I get back to San Antonio I want to advocate for public restrooms,” she says.
The Texas pastor also advocates against “criminalization of the poor,” which she faced early in her homeless state.
Later this morning at Noe’s Chapel, she will make the congregation laugh with her tale of having to leave a San Antonio shelter because her communion set (a cup and bowl) could be used as a weapon. She’ll share how she received a ticket when she tried to sleep on a park bench, and then was sentenced to do community service at the same shelter where her communion set wasn’t welcome. When she refused to do community service, a warrant was issued for her arrest, followed by a $150 fine … and so on, and so on.
Of course, the tale really isn’t funny. Rev. Smith’s Facebook page is dotted with photos of hovering police officers who question her presence wherever she stops to rest. Meanwhile, her online friends write in new tales of hospitals that ban the homeless or cities that outlaw feeding the poor on the streets.
As for her time in Knoxville, it was brief, but for Smith it seemed a friendly place. “Three cars stopped to ask if I was OK, if I needed anything," she said. "They wanted me to go to the homeless shelter.”
We were approaching Morristown, and I wanted to nail this part down: What else do Christians really need to know about the homeless, something they might be surprised to learn?
She said that many people assume the homeless are homeless because they’re mentally ill or have substance abuse problems. That's not always the case.
“A lot of people are depressed or are alcoholics and have bad things happen, but they don’t all end up homeless.” The common denominator, she says, is the lack of a supporting network.
If you’ve got friends and family to help you, you’re less likely to spiral into homelessness.
“It’s a complex problem,” Smith says, looking out at the rolling green hills near Noe’s Chapel.
When we arrive at the church, Smith is greeted by Pastor Loy, who is meeting his social-media friend in person for the first time after years of online teasing about snickerdoodle cookies.
Downstairs in the fellowship hall, a whole table of snickerdoodles awaits the traveling pastor. But first, she wants to use the restroom.
"Methodist pastor opts for life of protest on the street" (San Antonio Current, 8/3/11)
"Pastor jailed for backing young immigrants" (UMNS, 12/3/10)