EL PASO, Texas (UMNS) – 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 a shelter where Lorenza, a United Methodist pastor, is sharing with her homeless friends beneath an underpass in the downtown El Paso area. It was very 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 eight months. Five months ago, United Methodist Bishop James E. Dorff of the United Methodist Southwest Texas 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 this past August where we both were attending the annual meeting of Methodists Associated Representing the Cause of Hispanic-Americans (MARCHA). 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.
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 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.
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.
‘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.
Curious passers-by peeped over the bridge. They kept walking and turning back.
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 small-statured but strong woman who has embarked on a mysterious journey of renunciation in solidarity with those on the margins of society. She now lives on the streets of San Antonio trying to learn how it really is to go without.
Amanda Bachus is editor of el Intérprete magazine and director of Spanish resources.