Charles Strobel started out making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to give to the homeless from his Catholic church in Nashville. More than 25 years later, he presides over a Nashville campus that offers a raft of personal and vocational services for the area's homeless.
And his Room in the Inn project, in which local congregations volunteer their space for sleeping and offer dinner to the homeless, has spread across the country,
Strobel, 70 and now retired from the priesthood, will speak at an event at Lexington's Immanuel Baptist Church on Tates Creek Road on Oct. 10 in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Room in the Inn. The event is sold out.
The organization's Lexington ministry was started 10 years ago in response to a cease-and-desist order issued by the LFUCG against a local church who began offering food and shelter in their basement during the coldest nights of the winter.
The Lexington ministry provided 2,952 beds during its most recent season.
Strobel said that for people of faith — which includes congregations of all religious persuasions — the act of hospitality for the poor is crucial.
Freeland Davis, director of Room in the Inn-Lexington, said the program, which serves only single men, became popular among congregations shortly after it began 10 years ago with four churches.
"We eventually crossed the threshold where we did not have to go out and recruit congregations, and they came to us," Davis said.
Lexington congregations do not have to have dedicated sleeping areas to host Room in the Inn, just an open area that can house sleeping bags, a restroom and a place for serving food.
Speaking by phone from Nashville, Strobel said that when congregations — not just churches, because of the variety of faiths included — volunteer, it's because they are willing to make a long-term commitment of service, not just a few months here and there. He said that smaller congregations can have an impact as well.
In Lexington, participating churches are as big as Immanuel Baptist and Maxwell Street Presbyterian and as small as Christ-Centered Church on Eastland Parkway.
"The size of the congregation is not the measure of the person's heart, or the congregation's heart," Strobel said. "... It goes beyond what resources they have or how much they can provide. It starts with a welcoming heart."
"There's also an inward welcoming spirit" that those who host a gathering will feel, Strobel said. "Wherever those kinds of warm hearts are. ... We can't distinguish between them, we just know that their spirit, their love, their hospitality is primary."
Although he has lived mainly in Tennessee, Strobel attended the now-defunct St. Mary's College near Bardstown.
Strobel grew up in Nashville and in interviews has recalled his mother, Mary-Catherine, inviting homeless people in for a meal.
Strobel kept his commitment to the then-fledgling Room in the Inn project even after his mother was found murdered on December 9, 1986, and her body found in the trunk of her car. Initially, the killer was assumed to be homeless; he was eventually discovered to be a mental hospital patient.
Strobel asked that anger be set aside.
Homelessness, Strobel said, is "an ongoing problem. It's never been resolved in any community I'm aware of. There are always those who want to separate from those they perceive to be different."
He tells congregations that the dinners served to, and eaten with, the homeless can have sacramental power.
"It has the same power as those ancient Passover suppers," Strobel said. "Lasagna and ice tea can take on the same power. ... It depends on how we see it."
By the numbers
By the numbers for Room in the Inn, Lexington during the 2011-2012 season
2,952 beds provided during the winter season beginning in November
21 weeks, 147 nights
26 host congregations
For more information: Ritilex.org
Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.