With deep gratitude for his life of service, it is with profound sorrow Room In The Inn shares the news of the death on Sunday, August 6, 2023, of our founder and most tireless champion, Charles Frederick Strobel--known to those he served as Father, to his beloved family as Charles, and to his legion of friends as Charlie.
Born on March 12, 1943, Charlie was the third of Mary Catherine and Martin Strobel’s four children; his father passed away in December 1947, leaving Mary Catherine to raise the young siblings on Seventh Avenue North in Germantown, with the assistance of her two aunts Mollie Ross and Kate Schweiss. At the time, Germantown was a tightly knit neighborhood of blue-collar multigenerational families. It was also the location of Sulphur Dell, the city-owned minor league baseball park where Charlie’s love for the game began and only grew more passionate over his lifetime.
The family home, where Charlie lived until recently, was one block from the Church of the Assumption, which the family attended faithfully, where the Strobel children were baptized, confirmed, received First Communion and attended school through 8th grade. Charlie graduated from Nashville’s Father Ryan High School in 1961, where he earned the nickname, “Sunshine.” He 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 1969. It was in the nation’s capital where Charlie was fully awakened to the struggle for civil rights, racial equality and the dire, enduring consequences of poverty.
Charlie was ordained at the Cathedral of the Incarnation on January 31, 1970. After his ordination, he 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.
It was at Holy Name where Room In The Inn’s concept began to take shape with the legendary tale of the peanut butter sandwich. Hungry people frequently knocked on the parish door and with the church secretary he began handing out sandwiches. In 1983, at the urging of Margaret Don at St. Henry’s, Holy Name and other congregations started Loaves and Fishes.
During the winter of 1985, it was from his bedroom window in the rectory of Holy Name that Charlie saw people sleeping in their cars in the church parking lot. He invited them in to sleep on the pews in the warmth of the sanctuary; congregants were supportive and brought cots, blankets and food. As winter approached in 1986, Father Strobel wrote letters to the editors of both daily papers, explaining the concept of providing nightly shelter in church buildings to the homeless, and by Thanksgiving, four other congregations joined Holy Name.
Before that winter ended, there were 31 congregations participating in Room In The Inn, taking in a dozen to 15 men or women each on their nights. The Salvation Army gave the program space in a building downtown; in 1987 Room In The Inn moved into a city-owned building at Sixth and Demonbreun, where Bridgestone Arena is now.
The Winter Shelter program – which runs from November 1 through March 31 -- continued to grow, as did the Room In The Inn staff, services and facilities. In 1995, when the city needed the Room In The Inn building for the arena, the non-profit moved to another aging building on Eighth Avenue South, which became known as the Campus for Human Development. In 2009, Charlie and other community leaders wielded shovels to break ground on an additional 45,000 square foot building that opened in September 2010. The facility provided space for expanded services, as well as 38 apartments. The Campus has since expanded to include property on Drexel Street and will be opening 10 additional apartments this fall.
In 2005, Charlie assumed the role of Founding Director; Rachel Hester, who began volunteering at Room In The Inn as a college student, was named Executive Director. Charlie remained a constant presence at the Campus and worked closely with the staff in a more pastoral role. He made every effort to be at Room In The Inn to open the gate and welcome guests every night of the winter shelter program.
In addition to his work in serving the unhoused, Charlie was a lifelong, vocal opponent of capital punishment. In 1986, Charlie’s mother, Mary Catherine Strobel, was murdered in a random act of violence that shocked Nashville. Unaware at the time of who had killed her, Charlie 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 recent years, when Charlie wasn't able to be at the Room In The Inn Campus as much as he would like, he would often come during lunch time to sit in the dining room and eat with the guests. The conversations would bounce between the latest ball game or what they liked or didn't like about the food. As lunch ended, Charlie would always remind the guests he was with that they were good. 'You don't even know how good you are.' He wanted that to be the last thing they heard from him. Often, it was the first time that they would receive that reminder.
Charlie’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease slowed but did not stop him from spending time in his Campus office, filled and stacked with files, papers, books and baseball memorabilia, serving the community, public speaking, writing, traveling, and watching as much baseball as he could. In 2021, he attended the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska with his dear friend Pat Thompson cheering on Vanderbilt University to their second-place finish.
In the prologue to the book he worked diligently to complete before he died, he begins with a quote from Mark Twain: “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.”
Charlie never wavered in his selfless devotion to the unhoused members of the Nashville community. He believed deeply in the Beatitudes as a framework for living, and in particular, the words from Jesus in Luke 17 of the unworthy servants, who have done only their duty. “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to live this way and have it on your tombstone: Worthless Servant.” --- Charles Frederick Strobel, March 12, 1943 – August 6, 2023
The Charles Strobel Housing Fund is dedicated to the expansion of Room In The Inn’s Campus for Human Development to provide community and wellness space for critical wrap-around services, and accessible, affordable housing for individuals experiencing homelessness.
In 2010, Room In The Inn opened their expanded facility which included 38 permanent supportive housing units for Nashville’s most vulnerable neighbors. In the Fall of 2023, an additional 10 apartments will be opened for a total of 48 at the Campus.
Charlie believed that everyone deserved a home. He often referenced Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights--Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…
Charlie was a champion for those who found themselves in the margins. Room In The Inn was founded on the belief that everyone deserves a place to call home. There is still work to be done. The Room In The Inn community will continue to carry his legacy forward.