Today is All Saints’ Day, one of the major feast days of the Church, and one of my favorite Sundays of the year. This first Sunday in November is the day that we remember the saints of the church — all of them, those who have their own day on the church calendar, and those who may only be remembered by God.

It’s the day we remember our own saints, those who we love who are now part of what St. Paul calls “that great cloud of witnesses.”

And it is the day we welcome new saints into our fold through baptism.

Usually on All Saints’ Sunday I like to tell the story of a saint who has died in the past year, someone whose life was a witness to the work of God, and who worked to help draw us closer to realizing God’s kingdom here on earth.

This year the story I want to tell is a little different because it is about someone I know, the Rev. Charles Strobel, a Catholic priest in Nashville, who died in August. 

I’ll explain how I came to know Charlie in a minute, but he unknowingly predicted a great truth of my life. When I told him that I was going to seminary in Sewanee, he replied, “I have a classmate from seminary who teaches there now. I think you’ll really like him. His name is Joe Monti.”

The first words I ever said to Joe were “Charlie Strobel says to tell you hello.”

I knew of Charlie several years before I actually met him. His mother, Mary Catherine, was well known in the community for her tireless volunteer work with those on the margins of society.

In 1986 she was abducted and murdered. It was headline news in Nashville for days. Her murderer was arrested later in Texas. He had escaped from a psychiatric hospital in Michigan, and went on a killing spree that took six lives in five different states.

When he was brought back to Nashville to stand trial the district attorney announced his plan to seek the death penalty. The Strobel family immediately objected.

Daron Hall, who now is Nashville’s sheriff, was a newly graduated criminal justice major assigned to that case 35-plus years ago. Hall was firm in his convictions that justice demanded the death penalty in cases as heinous as this one.

One day as he was leaving the courthouse he heard Charlie speaking to reporters, explaining why he and his family were adamantly against the death penalty for their mother’s murderer.

“We are not angry or vengeful, just deeply hurt,” he said. “We believe in the miracle of forgiveness and extend our arms in that embrace.” To Charlie, even a murderer was a life worthy of mercy.

“Years later, I explained to Charlie the impact he had in shaping me as a person and a sheriff,” Hall said. “I credit him for instilling in me how to show mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.”

Not long after his mother’s murder, Charlie was in the rectory, which had windows that looked over his church’s parking lot. It was a bitterly cold winter night, and a group of men were huddled around a fire in a trash can, trying to keep warm.

Charlie went down to the. parking lot and invited them to come sleep in the warm church.

“I told them not to hurt each other and not to burn the building down, and that I’d bring them breakfast in the morning,” he remembered.

“I knew once they came through those doors that night that they would come back the next night, and the night after that,” he remembered years later. “I also knew I wanted them to come back.

“Looking back, I think that the homeless helped save my life,” he said. “I was so depressed, I would have just stayed in bed if I hadn’t heard them calling at the gate, ‘Please let me in.'”

As the weather warmed, Charlie’s guests no longer needed shelter each night. But as winter approached the next year, Charlie wrote a letter to each of Nashville’s newspapers, asking for congregations in that Bible belt city full of churches to join his church in providing shelter for those who had none. 

“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 home, too?” he askes. “Was it possible for Nashville to become a place where ‘love your neighbor’ meant something literal?”

Four congregations responded immediately. By the end of that winter 30 more had joined in, and Charlie’s program had a name — Room in the Inn. Now every winter — November 1 through the end of April — more than 200 congregations in the city open their doors one night a week to give men and women without shelter a warm meal, a place to sleep, a good breakfast, and a bag lunch. The combined generosity of those congregations provide about 15,000 nights of shelter each winter.

Out of Room in the Inn has grown the Campus for Human Development, a 45,000-foot facility that provides all kinds of services to people on the margins, as well as almost 50 apartments for those who previously have had no home.

I came to know Charlie after I convinced the congregation I was a member of in Nashville to participate in Room in the Inn. I later spent one night a week volunteering at the program’s gathering place, registering those who were seeking a room for the night, and then later serving on the board.

Even as the program grew, Charlie remained its heart and soul. Joe said that Charlie’s nickname in seminary was Sunshine, and it was easy to see why. His face lit up with joy at every person who walked through the door.

He saw the humanity, the dignity, the image of God in everyone. 

He was not naive about evil in the world. He adamantly told volunteers never to give any of the guests a ride, no matter how well we thought we might know them.

But he also never gave up on anyone. If someone had to be turned away because of drinking, or drugs, or violence, they were always welcomed back when their behavior had changed.

“He never gave up,” a friend said when we reminisced about Charlie this week. “He never gave up hope. There was always room for forgiveness. He opened his arms to anyone and everyone.” 

He also told everyone every day that they were good, words that many of his guests had never heard before. “You don’t even know how good you are,” he’d say.

In a column in The New York Times earlier this year Nashville writer Margaret Renkl called Charlie the “community’s conscience.”

“Charlie understood the difference between charity and community,” she wrote, “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 said, ‘is give a little bit of understanding to the possibility that life might not have been fair.'”

It is fitting that our gospel reading for today is the Sermon on the Mount, the scripture that Charlie said gave him “the moral framework through which I have tried to live my life.”

Charlie would have scoffed at the idea that he was a saint. “Every one of us has the ability to love our neighbor,” he said.

But Charlie certainly fits the description of a saint put forth by theologian William Stringfellow. 

“Being a saint does not mean being godly, but being truly human,” he writes. “It does not mean being other worldly, but being deeply implicated in the practical existence of this world without succumbing to this world.

“Being holy, being a saint, is not about the exceptional or the extraordinary. Instead, it is about the normal, the typical, the ordinary, the generic.

“It is not about being somehow transported out of this world, but about being plunged more fully into the practical existence of this world.”

The communion of saints is not a gathering of superheroes, but of people like us, ordinary men, women, and children, who — like Charlie — did what they could when it was laid before them.

Today as we gather at the altar to join in the feast of bread and wine, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, we stand with Charlie and with those we love and miss and remember and name today.

We do so knowing that this Eucharist joins us with them, and with all the saints. Those who are famous and those who are not. Those whom we remember with love and those of whom there is no memory.

All present with God, and with us in this holy communion.


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