Memoriam: A Sermon for Joseph Kevin Snell

Joseph Kevin Snell (1963-2009)

By Tali Hairston, Director for the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development

[Editor’s Note: Joseph Kevin Snell died suddenly August 5, 2009, at the age of 45. He had been the assistant director of student programs and director of intercultural affairs at Seattle Pacific University from 2001 to 2007. In 2007, he became the director of multiethnic programs at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, California. In his years at both universities, Snell was instrumental in helping establish long-lasting momentum toward diversity and reconciliation. Tali Hairston remembers his friend and colleague here.]


But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
–2 Corinthians 4:7-12


I never imagined how hard this would be. Losing Joe this way and this soon is not what any of us imagined. Many of you have had “a Joe moment,” and no one can believe he is gone. Joe visited Seattle in July, as was his normal way of vacationing from Los Angeles. He would call his many Seattle friends, including the Hairston’s, before seeing his family in Tacoma.


This one Saturday was different. Joe came to the house and we spent seven hours talking, sharing, and eating. As we said goodbye that night, I walked in the house and told my wife, “Joe didn’t want to leave.” I am thankful for that time.

We talked about Michael Jackson, and SPU colleagues Nikkita Oliver, Donte Quinine, Stephen Newby — and every person Joe could recall. Looking back on that night … I understand. And here is the message Joe left with me that night. Several times Joe said how proud he was of SPU. He said in his own way, “Y’all doin’ it man.” It was like he never left. He shared how proud he was of person after person. And we owe so much of where we are today to our friend Joe Snell. Joe, we are proud of you.

A passion that burned bright

Joe was the epitome of a treasure in a jar of clay. Every day he demonstrated that his life was lived as a witness to God’s all surpassing greatness and not any particular greatness that Joe possessed. And from that perspective, this made it easy, too easy, for anyone of us to feel safe and accepted by Joe. He had no haughty airs about himself or his looks, or his age, or his craziness. Joe was just Joe (boots, jeans, and all). He brought his full self everyday to every relationship. And for that we will never be the same. Joe continues to show up in each one of us in some way.

Without any pretense, Joe spoke from a passion that burned brightly, even if that meant an email to the president or vice president or me. He would often awkwardly squirm through meetings and then give the oddest look before asking some question, which was usually followed by a big loud laugh. Joe is, was, and will forever be known as a treasure in a jar of clay.

Joe was also the epitome of one who was hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. In this way Joe was a walking paradox and because of this his life was filled with great heartfelt tension.

A walking paradox

Let me give you some examples of what I mean by a walking paradox. He often felt rejected by family, but accepted by complete strangers who loved his bouncy walk and vaudevillian-like grin. He experienced rejection as a mixed culture person, but was accepted no matter what culture he chose to be in. He felt rejected at times in the historic black church, but they accepted his offbeat clapping and poor church attire. He was walking paradox. He loved Catholic mass, but needed his Pentecostal worship service as well. Accepted and rejected … cast down but not destroyed. That was Joe. To add insult to injury Joe couldn’t dance and had no chance with woman. Yet he died on the same day as Marilyn Monroe and on the same day as the debut of American Bandstand.

Ultimately I believe Joe wanted to be accepted for who he was nerdiness, paradoxes, and all. Joe had been the executor of his mother’s estate. He cared for mama passionately. This was the main reason for his leaving SPU. After the passing of his mother, Joe was still hurting because of his family. The day of Joe’s last visit to Seattle he had turned over everything to his family concerning his mother’s estate. He was tired. He had put his whole heart into being strong for mama and the family. He even failed to take care of his own needs to do so.


Now Joe will only experience acceptance. This is what he wanted more than anything. To be accepted as a walking paradox in a world that forces you to resolve every tension. Joe was comfortable in the grey areas of life as he was in the black and white areas. This was his definition of reconciliation.


A special campus remembrance

Join the SPU community in remembering Joseph Snell later this month at Gospel: Night of Worship. The event is free, open to the public, and disability accessible:


Gospel: Night of Worship,

October 25, 7 p.m.

First Free Methodist Church, Seattle


Tali Hairston Tali Hairston has guided the Perkins Center at SPU since its founding in 2004. He is leading Seattle Pacific in a comprehensive initiative born out of a dream and a partnership between SPU President Philip Eaton and the legendary reconciliation advocate Dr. John Perkins.


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