Mitch Snyder, dead at 46, had only one gift: for rousing himself and others to believe in the beyond. Beyond comforts. Beyond pieties. Beyond conventional and all other risk-free dodges.
The last time I saw his talent at work was a few months ago over a late-night meal at the Community for Creative Nonviolence, where Snyder lived among 1,200 poor people in the nation's largest refuge for the destitute. I had dropped by with an undergraduate from the University of Notre Dame, a young woman studying in Washington for a semester.
We were coming back from class, where Snyder had been earlier in the evening from 7 to 9:30. He had visited often with my students over the years when the need arose for someone to exemplify what Soren Kierkegaard described in "For Self Examination": We "forget or ignore the fact that the truly simple way of presenting Christianity is -- to do it."
In class that evening Snyder didn't batten his remarks with either role- or game-playing. Many had seen the "60 Minutes" segment on him or the Martin Sheen film about his Samaritan work and were prepped for an evening with a star. He stopped that fantasy by commenting early and crabbedly about universities. If any of you had any real intelligence, he said, a campus is the last place you'd be. You're wasting your time here, cramming your heads with theories, rules and other seizures of the spirit, while beyond the campus is a world heaving with pain and chaos, and poor people needing the mercies that everyone in the classroom could share.
In the fall of 1985 Snyder came to a class at American University. He offered the same thought about universities: "All you're doing is perpetuating that long and rich history that all of us are stuck with -- of having people who are bigger, older, stronger and more powerful tell us what to do. . . .
"Why do you think kids would run out of class if they could? Because the classes aren't what the kids want or need. . . . But we don't listen. We create, and have created, a society of people who will accept any injustice, any absurdity, any insanity and will step over the broken bodies of bag ladies who are mentally disabled, raped repeatedly, freezing to death and eating out of garbage pails."
Of the dozens of guest speakers I've brought in for students in past years, few matched Snyder's intensity and none so roused them to rethink the goals of their education. Not everyone took to him, for sure, which was true in Congress, the courts and the media, where, with moral unabashedness, he argued the point that charity for the poor isn't the answer, justice is.
At the University of Maryland, a student in the front row, possessed of a taste for logic as well as brashness that Snyder admired immediately, interrupted to ask: If you say we're wasting our time in college, why are you here with us tonight wasting yours?
I guess I have a sense of hope, he replied wearily, for you and for me.
He was tired that night. He had been up since 5 a.m. and had spent much of the day settling staff disputes at the shelter, defusing street fights and getting ready to go to Congress for still another try at wresting a few nickels in a time of ethical insolvency.
At the CCNV shelter, Snyder was in the kitchen cleaning up. Instinctively he stopped and did for us what he had done for literally tens of thousands of other people he had served at CCNV since the mid-1970s: offered some food, a warm room and an open ear.
The student had never been in a homeless shelter before, but, like many others in hundreds of audiences who heard Snyder liven the comatose by encouraging them to move beyond whatever barrier lay ahead, she would return on her own and allow her life to be changed. If Snyder was committed to a service of the poor, he had a side mission and perhaps more trying one, to rally middle- and upper-class people. At American University he told the students that a secret to a meaningful life "is proximity to those who are victims, those who are suffering needlessly or are innocent."
I met Snyder in 1974 when volunteering Sunday mornings at CCNV's Zacchaeus community kitchen. Those times, and most since, he spoke of proximity. If you come to the soup kitchens and shelters, he said, sometimes the greater help "is just to relax and be present to people, because that's what the people really need. That's the hardest thing to do."
Over the quiet and restful dinner after class that evening, Snyder had again made the hard look easy.