Mitch Snyder was often cast in the public mind as a wily politician and a sort of super-lobbyist for homeless drunks, mental cases and weirdos in general.
It struck me he had the usual problem of a saint-activist: that is, how to get anything done in a naughty world without seeking or accepting the support of those whose motives and aims were not the same as his. In a war you take what allies you can find. Stalin, after all, was useful to America in a great war, and it's startling how strange a bedfellow can be.
You would not have expected to see Marion Barry, for instance, on the podium at Snyder's funeral, not after Snyder tried to rouse the city to bounce the mayor out.
The truth is Snyder himself became such a public figure that he was, somewhat to his surprise, well worth cultivating. He was in demand as a speaker and thereby raised about a third of the annual budget for the District homeless shelter that he managed to establish.
He was often accused of blackmail, as when Holy Trinity Church once declined to give him a lot of money. They were keen to fix their roof, which as I recall was leaking all over the votive lights, and Snyder wanted that money for the homeless. And as Snyder had a gift for confrontation -- he would have been hell to deal with in traffic, if only he had had a big car to zoom around in -- the situation soon became both ludicrous and tragic. Snyder went on a fast, from which he might easily have died, but the church felt obliged not to give in to what it deemed blackmail, or ordeal by populist passion. For those on tenterhooks, the church roof is fixed and the homeless are still roofless.
A particularly good example of Snyder's dilemma arose over sheltering drug addicts. The sad truth is that the homeless are not always role models. To give them food and shelter at night you have to get money to create the shelter, and this means dealing with the government. No government is going to sponsor a drug scene.
But Mitch Snyder thought the Christian approach should be to give basic food and shelter to any human. It was not his job to turn the down-and-out into vice presidents but to accept and feed them with all their sins upon them, just as they were. At least that was better, he thought, than leaving them to freeze to death on winter nights.
Again and again he had to temper (though never as far as his critics would have liked) his instinct that love does not ask questions or require filled-out forms or demand proof of impeccable and conventional behavior. Love just gives what it can and leaves the rest to God.
It's odd how rarely Snyder's religious passion came up in discussions of his work. He took the commandments and threats of the Gospel all too literally in the opinion of those who took those same commandments and threats as poetry or fancy stuff. Depart from me, ye cursed ... for I was thirsty and ye gave me no drink. Snyder took it seriously. He was baffled that a Christian could laugh it all off.
Sometimes in heat or cold Snyder was out on the street with the homeless. Sometimes you could find him wrapped in a blanket on a steam grate. Testimony abounds among the homeless that he had time as well as food for them. You could stink and he'd still hug you.
To people far gone through the cracks of the welfare state, who longed for dignity and affection, there were only two avenues -- a good dog or a good God. Mitch kept trying to make it three.
He could have come much nearer success if he had been more conciliatory, more tolerant of Holy Trinity's interest in the roof, for example. But mainly his preordained failure (at least he saw it as failure) resulted from choosing Christ as the figure he wished to serve and to imitate, instead of something easier and more to the taste of the rest of us. No man who chooses that and goes any distance with it is going to have a life free of recurring bouts of despair, to say nothing of external hostility. The astounding thing is that he kept right on, blunders and all, not allowing any shortcomings in himself to excuse him from the heavy work he undertook.
The morning of his funeral was hot as all nine yards of hell, till a few clouds made it easier for those on the pavement before the shelter at Second and D. The tiles of the building are not glossy, but still radiated enough glare, along with the brutal sky, to make anybody's eyes go bad.
Like those mirages you see on Western highways, where in the interminable concrete you see the promise of cool water.
Mad dogs, Englishmen, and now friends at a funeral all lack the good sense to come indoors.
You see the sunstruck concrete, the hot tiles of the shelter, then the quiet bayou right in the middle of it with its cypress. And egrets waiting for the rain, and all the cattle peaceful and the lamb in his pasture. And the banner that says "Faithful" where the lamb has raised it up.
Or some other country landscape, depending on where you grew up, that you often saw as a kid, but now see only as an accident of light.