Giving it all up

The best part of travel is not the places you go, but the people you meet when you get there.

Lorenza Andrade Smith, Kathy Noble and MB Coudal talking about technology while waiting for the commuter train in Albuquerque. (Photo by Neill Caldwell)

After the conference, I was on the Rail Runner train with a dozen old and new friends, including Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith. She was our keynote speaker at UMAC (United Methodist Association of Communicators). I was glad to get to know Lorenza on the commuter train trip for an hour and a half between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

In her address, Rev. Andrade Smith had told us how she went to prison to stand with immigrants who were rallying for legislative passage of the Dream Act in Texas.

She went to prison wearing her clerical collar and heels without stockings. At the prison entrance, she had to turn in her heels, “Because they could be weapons.” Every time she sat in the prison cell’s communal toilet to pee, someone would kneel beside her and ask for prayers. She had to learn to pray while peeing.

Finally, when she found space alone in the cell, she fell asleep, cold on the floor. When she awoke, she was wearing a coat and socks. (Sometimes prayers are answered, even when we don’t know we pray them and we become covered in someone else’s warmth.)

Lorenza is a veteran and a pastor. After our conference, she was visiting a homeless Facebook friend in Boulder, Colorado, then returning to San Antonio, Texas to live among homeless female veterans for a while. She was given a bus pass on Greyhound. Lorenza has renounced her salary and her belongings to live among the homeless and to advocate for immigrants. She has speaking engagements all over, but looks forward to a silent retreat months from now.

She wears a long, but somehow-stylish, black or grey tunic-type outfit that seminary students have made for her. She keeps all of her belongings in a small rolling cart. In it, she keeps a change of clothes, a sleeping bag, a wool blanket and a small amount of toiletries. She said she uses panty liners to preserve the wear of her undies.

“That’s probably too much information,” Lorenza said. Not for me. I love TMI!

She also carries a communion set, a plate and a chalice, but was refused admittance into one shelter because, “It could be used as a weapon.” (Communion cups and high heels, you see, are dangerous!)

So that night when she refused to give up her communion set, she slept on her favorite bench in the park at the Alamo in Texas. She slept too late, and was ticketed for camping. At the courthouse for the hearing, the judge fined her 10 hours of community service to be served at the shelter, coincidentally the one that had turned her away for carrying the communion set.

Lorenza has a smart phone and updates where she is and where she’s going on Facebook. Her bishop had insisted she do this for her safety. I have befriended Lorenza Andrade Smith on Facebook and suggest you do too.

Being a huge fan of sleep, I asked Lorenza if she sleeps well on the street. She answered, “No,” with a laugh. It takes two nights of sleeping safely, like in a hotel, before she can sleep through the night. The nights at the Albuquerque Hotel were restorative, she said, yet they reminded her, as many such opportunities do, that she is privileged and cannot escape her privilege.

“The sleep deprivation is the hardest part,” Lorenza said.

Every time she speaks to groups, she is asked the same questions –

“What’s in your bag?” And sometimes she empties her bag to show them.

“How does your family feel about this?” She speaks openly about being in the process of separating from her husband whom she had already lived apart from. “People who are homeless have to be open and so do I. I have to live honestly.”

Wow. I was blown away by Lorenza. Talking to her has made me question myself, my attachment to my things, my place of privilege and my honesty.

When she decided to divest herself of everything, “The big things were easy to give away, but the small things, like the photos of my son when he was little, those were the hard ones.” She found a home for her photos with extended family members, who, by the way, are supportive.

Lorenza chats with Lester under a bridge in San Antonio. Photo by Mike DuBose.

I asked Lorenza about this photo, taken by Mike DuBose. I have been lucky to work with Mike on assignment and we always have a lot of fun. Before Mike took the photos, Lorenza asked if the people minded being photographed. She said that two out of three of her friends were agreeable and even spruced up a bit before the photos were taken.

Mike has an easy-going, friendly, and respectful manner with everyone. Mike DuBose is one of my heroes. And so, too, is Lorenza Andrade Smith.

Haiti’s Poverty and Deforestation

United Methodist missionary Rick Jost and Solar Ovens

Usually I blog about running and health here. My posts here seem often to be about the beauty of nature – trees, birds, wildlife – seen as I run. This is a story about trees being cut down in Haiti and this problem of deforestation.

Yes, earthquakes kill and maim and destroy, rich and poor alike. But the real killer and maimer and destroyer is poverty. Poverty leads to deforestation.

If the same magnitude – 7.0 earthquake that decimated Port-au-Prince – had struck in a country with better infrastructure and less poverty, perhaps a hundred people would’ve died, not tens of thousands. The earthquake of 1989 in San Francisco was a 7.0 magnitude and killed 63 people. So, poverty makes natural disaster thousands of times worse.

Haiti is often called the poorest of the poor. In 2006, I wrote a story for the Global Ministries’ magazine New World Outlook about Solar Ovens in Haiti. I learned that in May 2004, light rains triggered flooding in Haiti. The same rain fell in the Dominican Republic, the country which shares the island with Haiti. In the DR, less than two dozen people died. In Haiti, three thousand people died. The DR is greener and wealthier.

The problems with deforestation cannot be underestimated. Trees mean more topsoil, less runoff, less disaster when flooding hits, less killer mudslides. That’s why people from the Dakotas United Methodist Church supported the Solar Oven project.

The sun’s heat is an alternative cooking source. I really don’t know how having more trees might positively impact a country like Haiti during an earthquake. I have only reported on the natural disaster of flooding.

But I do know, as the weeks unfold, and as yesterday’s Christian Science monitor story suggests, reforestation should be a priority as Haiti rebuilds and returns. Harnessing the cooking power of the sun is preferable to cutting down trees for firewood.

Poverty – It’s Not Rocket Science. It’s Harder than Rocket Science.

Reducing poverty? “It’s Not Rocket Science. It’s Harder than Rocket Science.”

Geoffrey Canada, very charismatic, threw away his notes at the beginning of the talk. Notes serve to comfort the audience, but the speaker didn’t need them.

 His topic? “Changing Lives, Changing Communities.” It was my NYU college reunion on Saturday (25 years since undergrad, and 20 years since grad). I’m interested in what makes for community and how to uplift people caught in the multi-tentacled beast of poverty.

Canada is the genius behind the Harlem Children’s Zone. Their slogan? “Whatever It Takes.” The zone is a 100 block radius to lift about 15,000 Harlem kids socially, educationally, medically. The zone promises to stick with a child through college.

 Goals for Children

“We have to have the same goals for poor children, as for our own children. We aspire for college, not technical schools or the military, for our children. Because, at different times, people have break throughs,” Canada said. The one kid that no one thought would amount to anything continues through college and earned their Master’s degree in education. “So, we don’t know.” 

Do Lots of Things

“The U.S. is a rogue nation. We lock up more people than any other country. There’s a school to prison pipeline… You believe that children are our future and you love America.” So do something. But, Canada said, we have to do lots of things.

“Growing up in the ’60s, we always thought there was a conspiracy. The government had a plan. I’ve talked to presidents. There is no plan. There is no answer…. We keep thinking we can do one thing. We have to do everything,” Canada said.

 The cure for poverty is like the current treatment for AIDS, he said. You can’t give one pill – like better schools – you have to provide many antidotes – “hold people’s egos in tact while getting them to work harder.” What you need is an AIDS cocktail of pills, not just one anti-viral.

How We Talk to Children

“Poor parents use far more negatives when talking to kids. ‘Stop. Don’t. How dare you!'” Canada acted out an example of this. When a child with educated parents, dumps his juice on the floor, the parent gently corrects, coddles, maybe even uses the spillage as a teaching moment about gravity. When a poor child does the same thing, the family yells, “Stop that!”

The guy is engaging. The speech was a part of NYU Silver School of Social Work as it kicks off the new McSilver Institute of Poverty Policy, Practice and Research in a week or two.

At NYU, I attended the English department for grad and undergrad. I believe writing is a form of advocacy and social work. In college, I loved abnormal psych, anthropology, drama, literature, and writing.

Having written about reducing poverty through the Circles Campaign for Global Ministries, I have begun to learn what works, what doesn’t, and what the average person can do to help dig another person out of entrenched poverty. It seems to me that the Harlem Children’s Zone is digging deep and well in its attempt to reduce poverty.