Reverend Charles Frederick Strobel, champion of the poor and founder of Room In The Inn – a national model of shelter, care and support for those without homes to call their own – died Sunday, August 6, of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 80 years old.
Born in Nashville in 1943, Charles lived a life of radical service defined by his conviction that society’s highest obligation is to care for its most marginalized members, from those on the street to those on death row. He delivered his call for peace and justice with gentle warmth and an easy smile, drawing to him people of every faith, creed, ethnicity, and perspective in common cause.
The place where so many gathered to make Charles Strobel’s vision of the beloved community a reality was Room In The Inn, a singular continuum of care for the unhoused that is rooted in hospitality. Charles first conceived of Room In The Inn on a winter evening in 1985, when he looked out the window of the rectory of East Nashville’s Holy Name Catholic Church, where he was the pastor, and saw people sitting in cars, trying to make it through the bitter cold night.
He invited them in, fed them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and gave them a place to sleep. “I knew once they came through the doors that night, they would come back the next night and the night after that,” he later said. “I also knew I wanted them to come back.”
This initial act of kindness became the germ of Charles’ larger idea: a city-wide program in which congregations across Nashville provide food, shelter and — most importantly — community during the winter months.
Charles launched Room In The Inn early in December 1986 with four congregations. Two weeks later, his mother, Mary Catherine Strobel, was murdered in a random act of violence that shocked Nashville. Unaware at the time of who had killed her, Charles told those gathered for her funeral, as well as an entire city, “We are not angry or vengeful, just deeply hurt. We believe in the miracle of forgiveness and extend our arms in that embrace.”
In the ensuing weeks, Charles assuaged his grief by pouring his energy into Room In The Inn. By the end of that winter, 31 churches, synagogues and mosques had answered his call to welcome the unhoused under their roofs. “The homeless saved my life,” he would say of that difficult time.
In 2005, Charles asked his longtime colleague and friend, Rachel Hester, to become Executive Director of Room In The Inn, and he became Founding Director. Today, Room In The Inn comprises nearly 200 congregations and more than 7,000 volunteers who shelter nearly 1,500 people each winter. More than 30 Room In The Inn programs now operate across the country. The headquarters for Nashville’s Room In The Inn is a 64,000 sq. ft. downtown campus, that also offers emergency services, transitional programs, and long-term solutions – including mental and physical health care services, education, employment support and permanent housing – to help people rebuild their lives.
Charles was a lifelong, vocal opponent of capital punishment, even before his mother’s murder. In 1977, Charles testified before the Tennessee State legislature in opposition to the death penalty that he hoped he would stand against capital punishment even if his own loved one were murdered. In January of 1987, a Michigan prison escapee confessed to killing Mary Catherine Strobel. Nashville prosecutors recommended the death penalty, yet with the support of his family, Charles publicly pleaded for the man’s life to be spared. Ultimately, he was given a life sentence with no chance of parole.
Charles Strobel was devoted to the city of Nashville, especially its poor and working-class neighborhoods, the people who lived there, and the non-profit organizations and churches that served them, regardless of denomination. He was born and grew up on 7th Avenue North between Madison and Monroe streets, a quiet, integrated block of Germantown that was anchored by the Church of the Assumption, where he received the Catholic sacraments and said his first Mass after being ordained in January 1970. The Assumption was as much his home as his own home across the street, its pastor – Father Dan Richardson – a father figure to him after his own father died in 1947. Charles said of the North Nashville of his youth, “It was a place where the poor worked for the poor, where the poor served the poor.” Due to his upbringing, he believed his model for a community that cares for everyone was real and could be replicated.
Charles Strobel graduated in 1961 from Father Ryan High School, where he earned the nickname, “Sunshine.” He subsequently spent four years in the seminary at St. Mary’s College in Kentucky, receiving a bachelor’s degree in philosophy; and received a master’s degree in theology from Catholic University in Washington, DC in 1970. In Washington, he became immersed in the Civil Rights Movement. He also received a master’s in education from Xavier University and an honorary doctorate in divinity from MacMurray College.
Charles said his eight years in seminary gave him two simple theological structures to undergird his work: The Sermon on the Mount, which opens with Jesus telling his followers, “Blessed are the poor,” and the Jewish concept of “Anawim,” a word that draws everyone together in common poverty and common humanity. He often referred to “Beatitude Moments,” which he described as “grace-filled occurrences in life that are examples to us of our faith lived out on a daily basis.”
After his ordination, Charles served for five years in Knoxville as the Associate Pastor of Immaculate Conception parish. He also taught at Knoxville Catholic High School and was an instructor in the University of Tennessee’s Department of Human Services. While in Knoxville, he opened the city’s office of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the first of many ecumenical initiatives that marked his career. In 1975, he returned to Nashville to serve as associate pastor of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Donelson. In 1977, he was named the pastor of Holy Name, where he served until 1987 when he left to devote himself full time to Room In The Inn.
While those he served liked to call him “Father” and his family called him Charles, he was “Charlie” to his many friends from all walks of life. He was that rare combination – a contemplative soul with a gregarious heart. The only time he turned down an invitation was because he was double-booked. He was a breakfast regular at Noshville, guaranteed to show for every family gathering, known for hitting several parties in the same night, and a familiar face at the finish line of The Boulevard Bolt, Nashville’s annual Thanksgiving turkey trot whose proceeds support the unhoused. There he would be, wearing one of his worn flannel shirts and holding high a cardboard sign on which he’d scribbled with black Sharpie, “Thank you for helping the homeless!”
But his favorite pastime was our national pastime. Charles’ devotion to baseball was second only to his devotion to serving the poor. He became captivated by the game as a young boy and spent every spare moment during the season either at the old Sulphur Dell ballpark in North Nashville, home to the double-A Nashville Vols, or glued to the Motorola radio at home. Later in life, he was a regular at Nashville Sounds and Vanderbilt games and traveled the country visiting major-league parks. He also was a formidable player and participated in competitive leagues well into his 70s. Charles was known for shedding his easy-going persona as soon as he put on a uniform. “I’ll play any position that gets me on the field,” he would say.
Charles received many accolades throughout his life, including the Human Relations Award from the National Conference of Christian and Jews in 1989, the Catholic Charities Annual Service Award from the Diocese of Nashville in 2002, the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Nashville Chapter of the ACLU, the Joe Kraft Humanitarian Award in 2018, the Operation Andrew Annual Joe & Honey Rodgers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019, AgeWell Middle Tennessee’s Sage Award in 2021, and the Father Ryan Legacy Award in 2021. In 2004, The Nashville Scene named him Nashvillian of the Year; in 2005, he was one of 10 people designated Tennessean of the Year by The Tennessean.
Every time he approached either a pulpit or a podium, he used the opportunity to ask those assembled to recognize their shared poverty – and to lift up their fellow human beings too often denied a seat at the table. Upon receiving the Kraft Award in 2018, he again pleaded for a kinder world where the least of these are treated with the most respect. With tears in his eyes, he said, “They deserve to be here.”
Charles was preceded in death by his parents, Martin and Mary Catherine Schweiss Strobel; his sister and brother-in-law Veronica Strobel-Seigenthaler and Thomas Seigenthaler; his sister-in-law Patricia Holzapfel Strobel; and his great-niece Mary Catherine Strobel Hayes.
He is survived by his brother Martin Jerome Strobel, his sister Alice Strobel Eadler, and his brother-in-law Robert Eadler; his nieces and nephews Katie Seigenthaler, Beth Seigenthaler Courtney, Amy Seigenthaler Pierce, Amelia Strobel, Martin Strobel, Maria Seigenthaler, Merrill Strobel Bohren, Daniel Strobel, Margaret Strobel Pyburn, Morgan Strobel, Charlie Eadler and Katie Eadler; many great-nieces and great-nephews; legions of friends; the staff of Room In The Inn; and everyone Room In The Inn serves.
A Community Gathering to celebrate Charles Strobel’s life will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, August 11, at First Horizon Park, home of the Nashville Sounds Baseball Club, 19 Junior Gilliam Way in North Nashville.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution to the Charles Strobel Housing Fund, which is dedicated to expanding Room In The Inn’s Campus for Human Development to provide expanded community and wellness space for critical wrap-around services; and accessible, affordable housing for individuals experiencing homelessness.
Fond memories and expressions of sympathy may be shared at www.marshalldonnellycombs.com for the Strobel family.
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