A 'Don Quixote-Like Mission'

It is often said that prophets, revolutionaries and saints are difficult people. Lobbyists, politicians and bureaucrats can be equally difficult. The first are idealists, the second realists. Idealist and realist came up against one another last week when Mitch Snyder -- a saint to some -- agreed to end a month- long fast in return for $5 million from the federal government to renovate the Second and D streets shelter for the homeless.

To understand and appreciate Mitch Snyder's controversial role here, one must look to his activist roots in the Catholic Worker movement as interpreted by the antiwar and antinuclear priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan. At its core, the Catholic Worker movement, founded by Dorothy Day, represents a radical commitment to Jesus' command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless.

The Berrigans, whom Snyder met while an inmate at the Danbury Federal Penitentiary, believe that the institutions of society, such as state and church, oppress rather than uplift people. Their Jesus was a resister, an enemy of the state who was executed for denouncing the religious and civil powers of his day and for committing acts of civil disobedience.

Snyder first went on a hunger strike while doing time at Danbury as a protest of the Vietnam War and jail conditions. But in Washington, the Berrigan approach -- destroying draft files and hammering nuclear warheads -- is not enough. Here, power is a passion, and Snyder, a charismatic and remarkably articulate man, has demonstrated an uncanny ability to acquire power by capturing the media's attention. He has developed a media following almost as large as the Great Communicator himself. And, like the president, he has a clear message: the homeless of our city have a right to shelter and care.

Snyder is a master at flicking the political power switches of Washington. He aligns himself not just with the political left or right but works across the spectrum. He challenges, cajoles and sometimes threatens. He can be an enemy of political power one year and an ally the next -- witness his now friendly relations with his old nemesis, Mayor Barry.

Not that Snyder is thrilled by political figures; on the contrary, he professes a profound distrust of government and its attendant politics, again a hallmark of the Berrigan-Catholic Worker philosophy. But these politicians serve his purposes; a congressional hearing, after all, isn't such a bad way to bring national attention to the dilemma of homelessness.

And it is Snyder's personality itself that sometimes grabs that attention. This colorful and sometimes abrasive and vindictive Washington character can disrupt a hearing because he cannot stand the slow-paced, tradition-bound procedures. He once demanded that the chairman of the subcommittee on housing deliver a subpoena to the secretary of HUD.

This angry man can drive a federal judge to utter distraction when he thinks the real issue -- care for the city's homeless -- is being buried under legalisms. This pacifist can elicit a longer list of damning expletives and threats than just about any other individual in the city.

Having shared the great frustration that many others have experienced in dealing with Snyder -- his belief that his way, right down to the precise order of a witness list at a congressional hearing, is the only way -- I nevertheless find myself attracted to his Don Quixote-like mission. Snyder's anarchistic approach -- be it the organized chaos of the Community for Creative Non-Violence or the sad disarray of the Second Street shelter -- is difficult to accept and to understand, but it too is a kind of symbolic protest against the bureaucracy of governmental institutions.

Snyder believes in the fundamental goodness of people, and he believes that the misconceptions and fear most people have about the homeless will disappear when they see and understand their suffering, as he sees it. His hunger strikes, his media manipulation, his cavorting with the politically powerful amount to one thing: some attention for a homeless underclass.