TAMPA, Fla.—They’re sleeping in bunk beds, in a house without air-conditioning, in a hardscrabble part of the city.
Luke Wetzel and Brandon Lazarus wouldn’t have it any other way.
Both are UM seminarians with a role at General Conference, and both chose not to stay at one of the posh downtown hotels near the Tampa Convention Center—as the vast majority of United Methodists here are doing.
Instead, they’re at The Lake House, a nondenominational, evangelical “new monastic” community, keeping house and sharing meals with seven other young men.
“They’re incredibly hospitable,” said Mr. Wetzel. “They’ve said ‘eat our food,’ and they’ve fixed us food. There’s a guy that’s been driving Brandon and me to the Convention Center.”
Mr. Wetzel is a third-year student at Duke Divinity School and a General Conference delegate from the Kansas East Conference.
He was a delegate four years ago in Fort Worth, and stayed in a hotel. Since then, he’s become a student of intentional Christian communities, including those that are part of the Dorothy Day-founded Catholic Worker movement.
Mr. Wetzel and his wife plan to spend next year at a Christian community in Atlanta, and after that he’ll seek appointment as an ordained elder.
For this General Conference, Mr. Wetzel decided he would bypass the hotel scene and stay downscale, with Christians living together. He called some Florida contacts and found The Lake House, where residents invited him to stay free.
Mr. Wetzel said he’s not passing judgment on anyone else, but does feel that a General Conference where nearly everyone is staying in fancy hotels and eating at nice restaurants is not without consequences.
“I’m certain that setting affects us somehow as we deliberate about the things of God,” he said. “I have some other misgivings. The convention and tourism industry drives the poor out of downtown areas.”
Mr. Lazarus is a second year student at Perkins School of Theology, and a page at General Conference. He lives at Bonhoeffer House in Dallas, part of a group of new monastic residences encouraged by Professor Elaine Heath at Perkins.
He used the Internet to find The Lake House.
“Like the Bonhoeffer House, their main outreach is to the homeless and impoverished in their community, so I wanted to see how they do it,” Mr. Lazarus said.
Mr. Lazarus and Mr. Wetzel didn’t know each other before—“We have about 25 Facebook friends in common,” Mr. Wetzel said—but now are in bunks that are, as they laughingly acknowledge, inches away.
The first night, Mr. Lazarus was actually on the couch, as an attack of bedbugs had The Lake residents scrambling to bring in new mattresses.
But he’s used to improvisation in living arrangements.
“They choose to live very ascetically, so they don’t have air conditioning,” Mr. Lazarus said of The Lake House residents. “But they open up the doors and there’s been a nice breeze. So it’s been very comfortable.”
Mr. Lazarus, too, has concerns about the United Methodist occupation of the downtown hotels, and notes that $1.7 million has been budgeted for delegates’ food and housing.
“That money could be used in other ways,” he said.
But while there’s no mint on the pillow, and the covers aren’t turned down just so, Mr. Lazarus feels he’s having a richer, or at least less isolated, experience than many other United Methodists here.
“When I have prayers for Tampa now, it’s prayers for the people we’ve been able to meet through the ministry of The Lake House,” he said.
Both seminarians said they’ve appreciated eating and praying with their temporary housemates, and they’ve also been glad to answer their hosts’ questions about John Wesley, founder of Methodism.
Mr. Lazarus is not reimbursed for his volunteer service at General Conference. Mr. Wetzel, as a delegate, gets a $125-a-day allowance.
He said he plans to spend it in “an economy of grace,” and already has taken The Lake House crew to dinner. He is looking forward to doing the same for some visiting Duke Seminary students, and he will make a donation to The Lake House before he leaves.
Mr. Wetzel and Mr. Lazarus aren’t the only ones seeking alternative accommodations at General Conference.
The Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith is a UM clergywoman from San Antonio who lives on the streets in solidarity with and in mission to the homeless. She’s here as an advocate on immigration and other issues. She arrived by bus, and has been spending the nights outside.
On Sunday night, she’d found a congenial spot near the Convention Center, on which to sleep on her bedroll. But a security guard told her she would have to leave.
“Just asked to leave my bay-view sleeping spot outside the convention center,” she posted on Facebook. “They said they’re getting ready for some church conference.”