Oakland Preacherman – Are We All Crazy?

Posted on May 26, 2008


This article in SFGate.com is a story of Vincent Pannizzo, a graduate of Rutger’s University and former Ph.D. student at Cal who left it all, including family, to become a street preacher in Oakland. You can read about his reputation, and hear a sample of the “church” service that was recently held under an overpass.

The article seems to focus on Pannizzo’s intelligence suggesting that he is not “crazy,” in the mentally-ill sense. That posed for me the question of sanity.

[Images below by Deanne Fitzmaurice of the SF Chronicle.]

Reading through the article, you discover that Pannizzo got married soon after his decision to street preach. The marriage didn’t work, and there is a young son in the mix whom he hardly sees. Listening to Pannizzo, you discover someone erudite, somewhat well-read, clearly compassionate, and pastoral. Immediately, I am inspired and touched by Pannizzo’s commitment and ministry. I’m certain there are fruits of his labor that others have been unable to acheive. For that, we bless God, and the community praises his efforts. So ought we.

So, how can we actually make any reasonable judgments about someone’s mental stability? Is citing someone’s academic career really that evidential? What about all the other decision making processes that take people down their particular paths? Can “crazy” really be concluded given the fact that he gave up a lucrative career and a marriage and family? What kind of “intelligent” person does that? Even for the homeless?

Perhaps that’s why the SFGate.com author found the story so fascinating. The path is crazy, that is, illogical. It doesn’t make sense, and it seems against all sensibilities. And while I would even concur that leaving a wife and child behind for some higher sense of a spiritual calling or task is a false dichotomization that is perhaps more damaging than worth, Pannizzo himself is not crazy (again, in the mentally-ill) category.

The question that is not explicitly stated in the article is how could a sane person do something insane? What causes a stable person to make such unstable decisions?

If you ask Pannizzo,

“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.”

Okay. Clearly personal conviction and the Scriptures have the power to move someone to questionable acts of kindness and benevolence. We’ve seen that throughout history. There is something very reasonable about this kind of action. Compassion and philanthropy does that to people.

But why so few? And why are they the ones that are questioned regarding their mental stability? What then, does that say about those of us who are not moved by compassion and benevolence, but rather merely brought to an academic practice of critique and analysis?

Of the definitions of “crazy,” one of them is “very enamored or infatuated.” [1] So, while it may be true that Pannizzo is “crazy,” that is “impractical” and “totally unsound,” [2] perhaps those of us who are so enamored or infatuated with our comfortable lifestyles that we look down upon those who are impractical, ought to think more honestly about what “crazy” really is. It just may be that those of us who see life through narcissistic glasses are more crazy than those who, like Pannizzo, leave all behind for a calling and identity that is benevolent and self-depreciating.

[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/crazy
[2] ibid.

Posted in: Culture, Religion