I don’t know Methodist pastor Rev. Lorenza Andrade-Smith personally, though she is a facebook “friend,” but I have a feeling she would be embarrassed to hear that a blog post was written about her. Since it’s the Fourth of July and others are probably writing about American exceptionalism, I thought I would write about an exceptional American instead. The concept of American exceptionalism bothers me when it’s a manipulative tool that politicians use to one-up each other or stifle legitimate criticism of imperialist foreign policy. But I feel quite comfortable talking about the people who make American exceptional by dedicating their lives to creating a society that fulfills Thomas Jefferson’s assertion “that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and happiness.” Pastor Lorenza is one such person; she really does make me proud to be an American.
About a year ago, Pastor Lorenza asked her bishop for a strange appointment: to be a minister to the homeless living in the streets of San Antonio, Texas for three years. When she was appointed, she sold all of her possessions, rejected her salary and benefits, and moved out onto the streets to live among the homeless. In addition to her life on the streets last year, Lorenza joined a group of undocumented immigrant students in a thirty day hunger strike to try to change Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s vote on the DREAM Act, which would grant a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children and went into either the military or college. When the activists were arrested and put in jail, Pastor Lorenza refused to accept bail paid on her behalf until the legislation went for a vote.
This week, Pastor Lorenza was arrested for sleeping on a park bench. Apparently in San Antonio, it’s officially illegal to be homeless. She had been given community service and a fine, but she opted out in protest of the injustice of criminalizing poverty. Lorenza had earlier opted out of a homeless shelter because they tried to confiscate her communion chalice, telling her it was a potential weapon.
One of Lorenza’s clergy colleagues said that he’s worried about her: “The worry I have with her strategy is that it’s only going to last as long as people still acknowledge her as a rational part of the clerical community. But this is a radical step she’s taking, and before too long, I’m worried, they might just see her as another street person.” I wonder what our Methodist founder John Wesley would say about this distinction between being a ‘rational clergywoman’ and ‘just another street person’. I have a feeling that he would point to this distinction as symptomatic of the Spirit-smothering anxiety about respectability that has turned Methodism into “a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.”
I do know that Wesley preached in his sermon “On Riches” to “sit as loose to all things here below as if you was a poor beggar.” The fact that Pastor Lorenza has decided to take Wesley’s call literally is a powerful witness that encourages me to give myself to Christ more radically. Just imagine if other Christians in this country were willing to sacrifice their dignity so thoroughly to follow the “Son of Man [who had] no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). How exceptional could America become?