IT WAS AN OLD CHURCH, with a steeple and wooden prayer kneelers, and this was back in the days when you spent half the mass kneeling and you couldn't eat before taking communion. The church was crowded and not air conditioned and in the summertime you often ended up feeling hot, dizzy and hungry, with aching knees, and sometimes you wished the priests would stop the sermon and get on with it. But they never did. They talked on and on about missionaries and poor people and the sick here and abroad and exhorted us to give money to help them.

That was before the building fund drive. The church was too small. The parish had grown. They designed a church in the round, one of the first Catholic churches to be so built. It was going to be terrific. It would put the parish on the map. And the sermons changed. From then on, we got the gospel and a few words about the poor in South America and Africa and then we got The Lecture. Every Sunday, the priests let us have it about the building fund. There were even veiled threats about naming name of families who didn't contribute enough or at all. The building fund is no small thing in the Catholic Church, and for a few years in that parish it seemed as if we had our eyes firmly fixed on the new building and had lost sight of the poor.

Rightly or wrongly, this is what the Community for Creative Non-Violence says has happened to Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown. For months, the CCNV -- a small, radical group -- has tried to persuade the church to divert some of its $400,000 building fund toward helping the poor or to make some comparable "corporate commitment." The CCNV ended up confronting the church in a frightening drama that ended early yesterday morning when activist Mitch Snyder stopped his total fast after 12 days.

The CCNV gave a set of rather broad demands to Holy Trinity when Snyder began his fast on Dec. 24. The group waited for an answer, waited for the church to cave, and Snyder vowed to continue the fast until he died or the church agreed to the CCNV's demands. Neither side moved to compromise and as Snyder's condition grew perilous and moves were afoot to force-feed him, to save his life, his supporters moved him to a secret place where no one could get to him to end the fast.

Suddenly, the crazy antics of a bunch of radicals became serious business. A man might die. No one seemed able or willing to stop it. The situation was out of control. Snyder infuriated people. He was indulging in pure and simple blackmail. Extortion is what some Holy Trinity parishioners called it. Let him die, said others. There was anguish and anger in the parish and reporters who went to last Sunday's mass found that the parishioners felt they were being unfairly victimized.

And most surely they were.The church gives money to the poor and has helped CCNV projects, such as a soup kitchen for the poor. The church has a reputation for being liberal, progressive, caring. It also needs repairs. Why should it be singled out, targeted by a small group of religious radicals? Why should it be the guilt object for a man who has vowed to kill himself unless the church does what he wants? Where does Mich Snyder get off being the sole judge of how the church should spend its money?

Snyder and the CCNV were outrageous. They behaved abominably. Snyder dealt in the wildest extremes. The group had no credibility and a tiny following. The tactics were shoddy and wasteful of human life. They caused confusion and anger because they insisted, as a collective, on letting a man die unless they got their way. They had no business doing what they were doing, and yet it is a good thing that they did.

They have raised the issue of poverty again, stridently talking about street people, to a community that has lapsed into the comfortable notion that real povety doesn't exist here, that we do, after all, have a welfare system that takes care of those people. The CCNV has reminded us that in the "Me" decade of the Seventies there are still social ills that ought to concern us. It has again raised the legitimate question of what churches should care about, what their priorities are, and the group is saying we should care less about buildings and more about people.

The parish council met Wednesday night and voted not to budge. There was no attempt at compromise. The parish council apparently did not believe Snyder was bluffing. Many council members genuinely believed he was going to die and they would not alter their position. They issued a statement to that effect, adding a message to Snyder that "your life is holy and sacred and we ask you not to use it as a weapon."

Snyder and the CCNV had asked the church to give more money to the poor because they believe the lives of poor people are worthwhile, that those lives, too, are holy and sacred. Snyder wanted the church to show more compassion, to spend more money on repairing people's lives and less on repairing church organs. He put his life on the line for a cause, waiting for an answer and, in the end, he and the CCNV got it.

People are already saying that Snyder and the CCNV are losers, that they backed down, that the church called their bluff. But that's missing the point. The church council wasn't calling Snyder's bluff. They believed he was going to die and yet they would not yield nor compromise. The church leadership went on public record, on television, in newspapers, stating that it would not budge one step on how it spends its building fund money and that if Snyder insists on dying over it, so be it.

The CCNV believed that was the church's final word. Snyder, clearly, was running out of time. The group called off his fast before he died. The collective that consecrated Snyder's life to a cause refused, in the end, to let that life be wasted. This irrational, fanatic group acted responsibly, humanely, and allowed us to breathe a sigh of relief. And they didn't just issue statements about the sacredness and holiness of human life. They kept a man from dying and showed us, in the end, who values human life.