THE PUBLIC DYING of Mitch Snyder, as reported in the press and shown on television, was underway in the front room of an old house on a street of broken glass, empty lots and spindly black kids dressed too lightly for the weather-not that they knew it. In the parlor, Snyder lay on two mattresses, one on top of the other, waiting for the death he would prefer to avoid, or, as he would say, postpone. Mitch Snyder is dying. Pull up a chair.
In the hallways and rooms of the big old house, typewriters pound out the press releases of his dying ("Total Fast Enters Fourth Day") and upstairs other people work on other tasks. Behind the closed parlor door, Mitch Snyder is dying like a diva in an opera-pouring out words. At the moment, a reporter is with him, then I go, then some television crew.
The door opens and Snyder smiles up from the bed. He is 35 years old, mustached. From the neck down he is blankets and two cats, both of them snuggled into pockets of his shrinking body. Next to him is a book about Gandhi (oh, come now) and before him is a Christmas tree. The front window is home to many plants and there is a fireplace missing tiles the way fighters miss teeth, a few in front, and then to complete the circle, the dying body of Mitch Snyder-primed, ready to go, telling the great-grandson of Mendel the merchant about the true Christianity, why he will die and for what reasons. And so I ask . . .
"Should I let you die?"
Snyder-the dying, dehydrating Snyder-says I should not. He sits up in bed, in a room cold because the thermometer is set at 68 degrees, and he says he will die nonetheless-die unless this Georgetown church, Holy Trinity Church, does something substantial for the poor. Something. He does not say what, but it has to be more than just giving away old clothes. Something. He demands something. Otherwise, he will die.
Come close. You are welcome here, too.I just dropped in off the street, pretending to be a journalist. I am that, but I am also a man interested in someone who would die for a belief. A silly belief, I thought at first. He wants the church not to spend $50,000 to fix its organ and another $400,000 in the building fund and he has picked this particular church, for his own reasons. But it is the church of cabinet officers, lawyers in camel's hair coasts, of liberals who truly care about the poor and give, of bureaucrats who make sure that nowhere in this vast land does anyone starve to death. Those who do are an accident. A report must be filed.
"Are you afraid of dying?
"To be perfectly honest, no. I'm not. I hope I don't. I . . . "
"What if you die and you don't make page one? What if you die and no one cares?"
"The truth always comes out."
"They think you're a pain in the ass."
"Why this church? Of all the obscenities in the world, why this church?"
he tells why. He tells of first coming to the church with his group, the Community for Creative Non-Violence, and feeling a part of it and being welcome but then being bothered after a while, that the poor were not being served. There is pain out on the streets, he says. There is pain in death and agony and the church wants to repair its organ and renovate its building.
"We live in a land where people will let me die rather than not repair an organ."
The nails of his fingers are bitten down and his pain, he says, is thirst, not hunger. A woman comes into the room and takes a chair and sits for a while, unintroduced. She is part of Snyder's group, the Community for Creative Non-Violence. She listens as he talks about his death, his coming death, and she nods when he says that they have talked it all out-argued it, debated it, weighed the pros and cons. This is not something you do lightly, he says.
And in newspapers, a priest likened Snyder to the Rev. Jimmy Jones, the mad preacher of Guyana, and on the way over in my head I likened him to a child holding his breath, kicking his feet and turning purple until he gets his own way. But at the bedside, in the cold, all this changes and it comes down to someone saying he knows the pain of the poor and he would like to alleviate it-a bit. He would like us to keep them in mind, to remember that they are there and not to turn away as we all do, as I do, certainly, in the constant search for the perfect Cuisinart.
He has this plan. Near the end, the others in the house will take his body, his comatose body, and spirit it somewhere-somewhere secret, and there he will die. No authorities will come and put tubes in his neck. He will die, he says. At least he thinks he will die. One is never sure of these things. He has maybe seven, eight more days to go. In the meantime, pull up a chair.