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Methodist pastor opts for life of protest on the street

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Lorenza Andrade-Smith at the Good Neighbor Settlement House in Brownsville on her trek along the U.S./Mexico border last month.

After a week living on the street, Lorenza Andrade-Smith’s focus is drifting. “It hasn’t been long and I’m already exhausted,” she says, heaving a bulky backpack off tired shoulders and onto a nearby park bench at Alamo Plaza. The blazing July sun has fallen, and the tourists are dissipating as she starts to settle in for the night amidst the gathering dusk. “I’m sorry. Could we move over there?” she asks me, motioning to another steel bench across the plaza. “There’s no bar in the middle of that bench. … I’m going to try to sleep soon, and that one’s much more comfortable.”

At 42, Smith has already led several lives: that of a U.S. Air Force cadet, a housewife and mother, and the pastor of a United Methodist congregation in San Antonio. Now an outspoken advocate with a penchant for protest, Smith has sold all her possessions, rejected her church salary and benefits (which she estimates at around $45,000 a year), and traded her bed for benches, park grass, and parking-lot asphalt. This life has become her newest protest on behalf of the poor and marginalized, she says, a fight for “systemic change.”

Over the past month, Smith has shifted between shelters, local rallies, the U.S./Mexico border, jail cells, and meetings with local faith leaders at a furious pace. Belying her short stature and soft-spoken nature, she’s latched onto politically charged social movements that have begun to push her into the spotlight.

Sitting on her park bench, Smith tells me what’s behind her new cause. “Really, the goal of this is to be in community with those who do not have a voice. … I’m learning from them, this isn’t charity.” Local nonprofits estimate as many as 3,500 to 4,500 sleep on the streets or in shelters each night in San Antonio, and Smith is now one of them. As darkness settles on the square, Smith says, “How can I even begin to advocate for them, for what they really need, if I don’t know them or understand where they’re at?”

Pieces of Smith’s past foreshadow the causes that would later consume her. Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, her small Brownsville church doubled as a settlement house for South and Central American migrants. When we talk of immigration, and the fiery political debate surrounding it, she tells childhood stories of meeting these immigrants as they passed through, repeatedly drawing on words like “humanity” and “compassion.” While she would later work within the church pushing for HIV/AIDS education, prevention, and treatment, it was her brother who opened her eyes to the crisis when he tested positive for HIV five years ago. And, while still contentious in many religious circles, Smith openly talks of fairness and equality for the LGBT community — the same brother, she says, came out to her family when he told them he was HIV-positive.

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