Sam Smith, WAMU, 1990 – This spring, when homeless activist Mitch Snyder announced he was going to retreat to a monastery for awhile for reflection and renewal, I felt pulled to drop him a note thanking him for his witness, for the good it had done, for the wisdom and encouragmeent it had given others. In the note I quoted Emerson.
“The voyage of the best ship” said Emerson, “is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”
I can not comprehend Mitch’s last tack that ended in suicide. But the average tendency of his life has been as inspiring as any I have known. At times humbling, at times guilt-provoking, at times incredibly catalytic and at times — yes — aggravating, this one scruffy amalgem of love and anger, intensity and gentleness led us to care far more about what it was easier to ignore — the homeless refugees of the puerile, avaricious American dream of the 80s.
Lately we’ve been falling back to easier ways. The DC city council has just ordered a cruel retreat from the decency towards the homeless we overwhelmingly supported in Inititiative 17. In San Francisco, on the very day Mitch died, Mayor Agnos ordered the arrest of homeless people sleeping in public places.
What effect this had on Mitch I don’t know. I do know that in his last days he was organizing a massive drive for a referendum on the council action. As he met in the shelter to discuss the referendum last week, he patiently explained to a man reciting some of the new cyncism towards the homeless that no one in that 1400-bed shelter wanted to be there. Not even Mitch Snyder.
And I do know that we talked on the phone on Monday. He told me enthusiastically of the law suit being filed against the council and of the lawyers who were working on the case and would I be one of the plaintiffs. I said, sure, and he said — as he did so often to so many people he had pulled to the cause in that soft gentle voice — he said: “Thank you, my friend.”
But I also know that Mitch lived a life in painful proximity to modern society’s cruelest results and carried a terrible trusteeship for its victims. In recent months, there were voices — most sadly among those in power and in the media — indicating that we no longer needed to care.
For me, Mitch — controversial, blunt and irrascible as he was on occasion — fit the best definition of a saint, which is to say that Mitch Snyder was a sinner who kept trying. I suspect the only eulogy he would want is a commitment to nothing more than the simple decency he espoused. Oh yes, and perhaps his own soft, gentle benediction: “Thank you, my friend.”
–WAMU, Washington, July 6, 1990