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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.

When I caught up with Smith at the Unite Here rally downtown, she was about to be arrested — as requested by protest organizers — but was clearly hesitant about going through with it. And District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal and former Councilwoman Berriozábal tried to talk her out of it, Smith says. After stepping away from the crowd, crouched in prayer for several minutes, she walked back to the protest, joining 10 others in the street before police took them away.

“The thing I worry about in Lorenza’s case is that she’s in danger of spreading herself too thin,” Feagins says, “that she just becomes a professional protestor, that anytime somebody’s out there with a placard for any kind of left-wing protest, that she’s going to be there.”

Smith’s stalwart activism has ratcheted up quickly, the hunger strike, the arrests, and her choice to be homeless sprouting up just within the past year. On the local level, Smith represents a tightening tie between mainstream religion and social-justice activism, Feagins said. It’s a segment of Christianity that stands in stark contrast with that displayed by the Religious Right, key players of which will converge on Texas this week for the “Response,” the Governor Rick Perry-sponsored prayer event in Houston.

“There’s a whole lot of various forms of civil rights movements. There’s gay rights, gay marriage, a spattering of immigrant-rights stuff, and there’s these movements for public workers,” Feagins said. “I believe that we’re passing into a time where people, including many of those in the church, are fed up, and that this stuff is going to get more intense, like in the ’60s,” he said. “That’s where I see Lorenza playing a role.”

At my last meeting with Smith, I find her waking up in a parking lot outside of the University of Texas’ United Methodist Church in Austin, where the staff allow the homeless to camp at night. It’s only been a month, but she looks drained, exponentially more tired than our last meeting. She says she still doesn’t sleep much. Apart from her backpack, cell phone, and walking stick, she’s acquired one new possession: a screwdriver. She laughs and says a new friend gave it to her in case she needs to protect herself.

I give her a ride back to San Antonio; for the past week, she’s been Greyhounding between the two cities for meetings with various groups, meetings about immigration, workers rights, homelessness. We continue to talk about why she’s doing what she’s doing, if people will think she’s crazy, and whether or not that even matters. Talking about her new life, she says, “It hasn’t been long. I feel like I’ve already learned so much. … Just the idea of wanting a little bit of respect, feeling looked down on all the time out here. … I now know how it lifts the soul when someone shows genuine kindness out here. That’s the kind of thing I’m trying to learn.” •

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