Nine years ago, Vincent Pannizzo, now 39, dropped out of his doctoral program at Berkeley to take up preaching. But Pannizzo's ministry in East Oakland, Calif., is different from what most pastors experience; indeed, it stands out even among street preachers. He's known as Preacherman to those that come to his nightly "services" on an otherwise unfriendly street corner:
Lucid and soft-spoken, he is not mentally ill, by all accounts. Even the police and shopkeepers who monitor his comings and goings say they find this remarkable. They assumed one must be crazy to give up a promising life to sleep in homeless camps and preach to other street people in one of the most violent, impoverished stretches of East Oakland.
"I've never heard of a street preacher like him anywhere in the country," said Michael Stoops, longtime leader of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "I've often thought that if you're going to minister to the poor, you should try living like them."
Pannizzo is remarkably self-effacing about his ministry:
"I don't expect people to become saints listening to me," Pannizzo said as he watched his flock shuffle off. "I just hope they walk away with seeds in them that someday will flower. I want them to live better lives."
It's not the spare change or the food that draws the crowd, his followers insist. It's the message: Love each other, abandon drugs and booze, don't despair in your poverty, keep faith in God, respect authority, try to lift yourself up. Don't judge each other.
"He is our lifesaver, the only thing that keeps us from going crazy out here," said Jerry Serrano, 37, who sleeps in alleyways. "The fact that he's homeless like us - that makes him real. But what really matters is what he says to us.
"There's nobody like him I've ever met."
Indeed, contrary to the usual street preacher, Pannizzo speaks quietly instead of shouting and doesn't conjure visions of damnation for addicts and homosexuals. His message and style, rather, evoke a low-key Sunday school session. And - being an ancient-history honors graduate of Rutgers University and a former doctoral candidate at Cal - he can carry on an erudite conversation on most things from the intricacies of camping outside to the pitfalls of Roman civilization.
Curiously, Pannizzo both stands out and blends with his crowd. His jeans and sweatshirts are clean but are worn and often stained from painting jobs. The well-calloused hands and lean, fit physique from hard work contrast with the mild brown eyes and easy smile. He joshes around with the homeless and seems like them in many ways, but when he speaks he is clearly a leader.
"I'm not nuts," Pannizzo said with a chuckle one recent morning, standing in the unusually tidy camp he keeps with a half-dozen other homeless people. "I'm basically just a regular guy. But at one point I began really reading the Scriptures, and they really blew me away. God gave me faith. This is what I must do."
Lastly, a hat tip to the Rev. Will Scott for pointing to the story.