“Proof That One Life Can Change the World.” The headline of a recent New York Times column drew me in and did not disappoint.
The article was about Father Charles Strobel, a Nashville legend. The columnist, Margaret Renkl, writes about Strobel: “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.”
Offering Community Along With Charity
Among many other good works, Strobel founded a homeless outreach group called Room in the Inn. It began on a cold night in 1985, when he looked out his rectory window and saw people sleeping in cars to keep warm. He welcomed them into his church with offerings of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. According to his obituary, he remembered: “I knew once they came through the doors that night, they would come back the next night and the night after that … I also knew I wanted them to come back.”
That wanting makes all the difference. It’s one thing to do random acts of charity. It’s another thing to want to become a part of people’s lives.
“Forty years ago, Father Strobel became pastor of an old, under-resourced but solidly Catholic inner-city parish,” his longtime friend Father Owen Campion writes in Our Sunday Visitor. “Many times every day, people out of luck came to the door asking for help. Rather than giving them a sandwich and closing the door, Father Strobel planned, organized, recruited help and raised money for what became the most effective, imaginative and inclusive sanctuary for the homeless in the city.” The city of Nashville is about to open a secular center based on his model in his name.
Life is Precious
Strobel is also known for something more tragic and shocking. His widowed mother, Mary Catherine, went to Mass at his parish on the feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, 1986. Afterward, she disappeared while doing volunteer work and was found later in the trunk of her car, having been stabbed after being robbed of $34. Her killer had escaped from a mental facility.
Strobel and his family refused to seek the death penalty for her murderer. At his mother’s funeral Mass, he said: “We are not angry or vengeful, just deeply hurt. We believe in the miracle of forgiveness and extend our arms in that embrace.”
Strobel clearly learned from his mother. As he recalled in an interview:
You couldn’t contain my mother … She was involved with everything. She’d go to church in the morning, visit someone in the hospital, go to the soup kitchen, drop some clothes or a sack of groceries off to a family after work. She knew life was precious; she couldn’t bear the thought of anyone being alone without someone to care for them.
Let’s Love Our Neighbor
In a video about Room in the Inn, Strobel said:
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. The most important image I use now is the notion of a communion meal.
It’s about encounter and intimacy. It’s about seeing a person as a person and not a cause.
And he did it because of God. Because he saw so much more than the sorrows and challenges of life on Earth.
The book Legacy of Mercy by Gretchen R. Crowe tells the story of Rachel Muha’s forgiveness of her son’s murderer. Muha emphasized something critical:
Rejection of the death penalty does not mean rejection of justice or punishment. If we excuse them, we offer them no real hope for a life of happiness. We have to have real love — a love that requires accountability and demands conversion … Real compassion begins with forgiveness, but also says: I know what you did. You were wrong — you were bad. But together we can become holy.
There it is again! Relationship! Even with the man who killed your son!
People like Strobel and Muha don’t have to be outliers. As Strobel’s successor as the head of Room in the Inn said in an interview: “Every one of us has the ability to love our neighbor.” So let’s get started.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review magazine and author of the new book A Year With the Mystics: Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living. She is also chair of Cardinal Dolan’s pro-life commission in New York, and is on the board of the University of Mary. She can be contacted at [email protected].
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