You’ve probably never heard of Charles Strobel, but by the time he died on Aug. 6, at the age of 80, he was a hero here in Nashville, at least among people who worry about what the city is becoming: a place where only the well-off can live with any measure of comfort or security.
Even before Nashville’s swift and stunning growth began to gentrify working-class and impoverished neighborhoods, Father Strobel had already become our civic conscience. What he understood is the difference between charity and community — a difference founded in kinship, in recognizing that we all fall down, that sometimes it takes another hand to pull us up again. “All you have to do,” he once told the novelist Ann Patchett, “is give a little bit of understanding to the possibility that life might not have been fair.”
That understanding seemed to have been inborn in Father Strobel, but his role as this city’s moral gadfly began in 1985, when he was a priest assigned to Holy Name Catholic Church in East Nashville. One cold night he looked out the rectory window and saw people sitting in cars in the church parking lot, trying to keep warm. He went outside and invited them in.
“I knew once they came through the doors that night, they would come back the next night and the night after that,” he often said. “I also knew I wanted them to come back.”
With the help of kindred souls, he managed to shelter and feed his unhoused neighbors all winter long. As he did, an idea bloomed. What if all the houses of worship here — all the churches and all the synagogues and all the mosques and all the temples — opened their doors to people without homes, too? Was it possible for Nashville, the self-described Buckle of the Bible Belt, to become a place where “Love your neighbor” meant something literal?
Father Strobel wrote a letter to the editors of both of the city’s daily newspapers proposing the idea. By December, four congregations were opening their doors to people experiencing homelessness, and a program called Room in the Inn was born.
Two weeks later, tragedy struck: Father Strobel’s mother was kidnapped and murdered by a man who had escaped from a Michigan prison. Mary Catherine Strobel was a beloved figure in the community, a role model for service to others. Her murder shocked the city.
Always an opponent of the death penalty, Father Strobel spoke for his family when he said, at his mother’s funeral: “We are not angry or vengeful, just deeply hurt. We believe in the miracle of forgiveness and extend our arms in that embrace.”
The Davidson County sheriff Daron Hall remembers that message as a turning point in his own life. “At that very moment, I began questioning how can I be so desperate for a pound of flesh in this case when the closest members to the victim were displaying compassion?”
What Father Strobel understood is that compassion is the only thing that can save us. “Looking back, I think that the homeless helped save my life,” he told Nashville Scene’s Kay West in 2004. “I was so depressed, I would have stayed in bed if I hadn’t heard them calling at the gate, ‘Please, let me in.’”
He kept letting them in, and others did, too: By the Spring of 1987, Room in the Inn had expanded to 31 churches, synagogues and mosques.
It kept growing, and in 1998 Father Strobel left the priesthood to devote himself to it full-time. His family always called him Charles and his friends and colleagues called him Charlie, but he remained Father to the people he served. A loving pastoral role can take many forms, not all of them sanctioned by a church.
Today more than 200 congregations take part in Room in the Inn, and 7,000 volunteers help to shelter more than 1,500 people experiencing homelessness each winter. Every night from November through March, church buses and volunteer drivers arrive at the Campus for Human Development, as the program’s 64,000-square-foot headquarters is called, to pick up people experiencing homelessness and take them back to their own places of worship. There their guests find a hot meal and a warm bed. After breakfast they are transported back downtown with sack lunches in hand.
Year-round, the Campus for Human Development offers job counseling, education, emergency and transitional services and even permanent housing, and the campus is still expanding. (Donors can support these efforts through the Charles Strobel Housing Fund.) Across the country, 35 other cities have created programs that follow the Room in the Inn model. All of it is a testament to Father Strobel’s vision of a right relationship between neighbors in a community.
“His radical idea,” wrote Ms. Patchett in 2013, “was that the homeless need not be served in low, dark places, and that people with nothing should be able to stand beside people with everything and hold up their heads.”
None of this was a capitulation to the political and economic realities of living in a deeply red state. Father Strobel never gave up holding politicians to account, pushing them to provide at the governmental level what individuals, no matter how good-hearted and full of neighborly love, cannot, or at least cannot on a scale that meets needs so fundamental and so widespread: housing, education, job opportunities, addiction and mental-health treatment, compassionate policing, judicial justice and the like.
Even as the sprawling campus grows and the services it offers expand, the heart of Room in the Inn is still its understanding of relationship, a reciprocity that benefits everyone involved. “I’ve described the program as a sanctuary from the violence of the streets, or as Ellis Island for urban refugees, or a Red Cross tent in a war zone, or as an oasis in an asphalt desert, or a gathering of friends, or as a rewriting of the original no-room-in-the-inn story,” he recalled in a video posted to social media by Room in the Inn. “The most important image I use now is the notion of a communion meal.”
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Over the years, Father Strobel was honored again and again, and received a lifetime achievement award from ACLU Tennessee. His work has been the inspiration for a host of other desperately needed outreach efforts, both faith-based and municipal. But his friends at Room in the Inn remained at the center of his life. Until about six months before he died, of complications from Parkinson’s disease, Father Strobel remained a near-daily participant at communal meals.
Rachel Hester, who succeeded him as executive director of Room in the Inn, told WPLN last week that he would not want to be remembered as a saint. “Every one of us has the ability to love our neighbor, and that’s as simple as it comes,” she said. “We’ve had it in us from the beginning.”
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” Her next book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.
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