Mitch Snyder had a way of making you feel ashamed of yourself -- ashamed for all the times you ignored the street people, ashamed for your selfishness when you refused to drop a few coins you could well afford into the ratty McDonald's cup. The example of his life painfully reminded you of all the stories from the nuns about Saint Francis of Assisi, who joyfully took the clothing from his back to clothe the homeless.
A number of little boys listened to the nuns and wanted to be like Saint Francis. Some would even quietly pray in chapel for the wonderful gift of a stigmata -- the bleeding wounds of Christ. But little boys grow up and become capitalists, wanting cars and homes and expensive college educations for their children. Apprentice sainthood doesn't work very well in the modern world.
Mitch Snyder didn't grow up.
Behind the veneer of excesses was a small boy who still seemed to want to be a saint. He saw the poor. He truly seemed to love the lost, often alcoholic, frequently crazy street people. He didn't turn from how they smelled or acted. One exceptionally cold night three years ago, he was standing outside the Second Street NW shelter doing television interviews when a demented resident rushed forward and punched him to the ground. There was a flurry of stunned excitement as Mitch, holding his hand to his face, tried to regain his senses. Several hands grabbed the woman and as soon as Mitch could determine what had happened, he rushed to her aid. He wasn't angry, he was concerned about the woman, concerned that she be properly taken care of. He told her he loved her, and then turned back to complete his television interviews, never losing the opportunity to argue about people dying on the streets in the bitter cold.
That turn-the-other-cheek kindness was often hard to take, because the more cynical among us wanted to see in Mitch a man with a Messiah complex -- a man perhaps more taken up by goodness itself than by actually doing good. He was a man who would defy convention and stubbornly hold to a plan, such as another hunger strike, when the effectiveness of hunger strikes had passed.
There were similarities with the early Christian leaders Mitch admired. Like them, Mitch abandoned a wife and family and said he would carry the guilt of that to the end of his life. In an interview two years ago, Snyder said, "I grew up swearing never, ever to do to my kids what my father had done to me. Because that wasn't a good thing to do to a kid, to leave him without a father." Yet somehow, he added, "I did exactly what was done to me."
But then like Saint Francis, or perhaps more like Saint Paul, Mitch submerged his personal life into a religious zealotry on behalf of the homeless with a single-mindedness that could be infuriating. In a conversation once, I asked what had brought him to such an obsessive devotion to the cause. He answered, "God told me to do it." I said that that was not a satisfactory answer for an intelligent man, and he responded firmly, "God told me to do it." And I knew he believed it. It was at such times that it was hard to like Mitch; you had to remind yourself that Saint Paul was also an exasperating zealot without whom Christianity probably wouldn't have survived.
But beyond the zealotry, Mitch was the only truly effective advocate for the homeless.
Much is said about how cynical the media can be, but it is hard to find many reporters who didn't like or secretly admire Mitch. He talked earnestly to each reporter about his cause. You could see in his sad eyes that he believed the reporters couldn't help but agree with him.
He didn't see the conflict of interest when he would call a reporter to ask for advice in how to get the maximum publicity for one of his glittery Christmas dinners for the homeless, with Cher serving mashed potatoes and the Fabulous Thunderbirds providing entertainment.
He was at times a showman that P.T. Barnum might have envied, and at others a master at getting good press that the father of public relations, Ivy Lee, would have hired. He had a way of talking directly to movie stars, reporters and politicians and he enlisted them as allies in his fasts, demonstrations and appeals to the White House and Capitol Hill.
One night he came to a private dinner in a Northwest Washington couple's home. There were only two other guests, then-House Speaker Jim Wright and his wife, Betty. The Wrights arrived on the hot August evening in the speaker's limo, dressed casually, but not as casually as Mitch, in a well-worn, cotton open-collar shirt -- a shirt he had taken from used clothing someone had donated to the shelter.
Mitch focused on Jim Wright. There was money he needed for his shelter tied up in a House committee, and Wright, known for his temper and impatience, took to Mitch, who spoke to the Texas populist in him. It wasn't long after that that Wright had dinner with one of his committee chairmen and told him he would consider it a personal favor if the necessary legislation would get out of committee so Snyder could get his money. The money was released a short time later.
There were those who thought Mitch was enamored with all the celebrity, the trips to California where he and Carol Fennelly, his longtime companion both at home and in the movement, would be wined and dined by Hollywood stars. There was even the movie of his life, starring his friend and loyal supporter Martin Sheen. Mitch saw it as helpful to the homeless, but he was embarrassed about the focus on him. The night of the gala fund-raising opening at National Theatre, Mitch paced around outside and then went to get a drink at the J.W. Marriott with Sheen. He hadn't seen the movie and said he didn't think he would ever be able to watch it.
During the past several months, Mitch's life seemed in more turmoil than usual. He split up with Carol and talked of taking a sabbatical and entering a Trappist monastery in Virginia. Carol began dating, leading her own life, and Mitch found he couldn't bear that. The couple got back together and surprised the Community for Creative Non-Violence by announcing they were going to get married.
Just a month ago at a black-tie dinner to raise money for AIDS research, Carol and Mitch showed up, he in his bulky green Army fatigue jacket. Carol was her usual effusive self. She said happily that Mitch had actually kissed her for the photographers, something he would never have done before. He was a little embarrassed about the fuss, but like Carol, talked with more excitement than one might have expected about the upcoming September wedding. It would be in front of the shelter, he said, and everyone would be invited. He seemed happy and romantic in a way that was unusual for him. He seemed a man at peace, a man who had confronted private devils, but who finally had decided what he wanted.
Somehow the devils apparently returned. Maybe we'll never understand why Mitch ended his life in such a dramatic denial of his adopted Roman Catholic beliefs. He leaves the homeless movement at its lowest point -- a time when we're no longer embarrassed to ignore the man with the paper cup.
Once friends warned Mitch that if he tried to hold yet another hunger strike, he would be ignored and would die. He was, they pointed out, a more effective advocate alive. He said with high-sounding words that the movement was bigger than he was. He told them that he was not the leader of CCNV, that there were no leaders. He said the cause would go on without him.