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Nearly two years ago, a Jesuit from Argentina by the name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to a position of great power. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Nowadays, most people just call him Pope Francis. I (like most Catholics) know him as Papa Frank. Since his election, there’s been a change in tone in the Catholic Church’s echo chamber. You can hear it just about everywhere you listen. The new pope, this narrative goes, is a hero who wants to bring attention to the plight of the poor by forcing the rich to consider what they have and to give away that which they do not need. 

Well, this is an argument that Room In The Inn, a Nashville-based charitable nonprofit, has been making for almost 30 years now. Since 1986, Room In The Inn has provided homeless families in Nashville a place where they can better themselves. The organization provides a lot, including free professional services such as job training and legal help, as well as fun activities like arts and crafts, guitar lessons, storytelling, and basketball. The campus, located on Drexel Street in downtown Nashville, also has some beds where the homeless can spend the night during the cold winter months. 

But even with all the beds and daily activities it provides, it still couldn’t fulfill its central mission without the generous involvement of other congregations throughout Nashville. That’s because the campus in downtown Nashville, as big as it is (and it is something of a compound), still wouldn’t be able to hold all of the homeless in this city. 

That job falls to the various congregations around town that have chosen to support Room In The Inn’s mission to provide the poor with warm beds on freezing nights. According to Jeff Moles, the organization’s Community Development Coordinator, “Nashville’s Room In The Inn program now includes 190 congregations, with a goal of having 200 on board by the end of the current season,” which ends with the arrival of spring. 

Room in the Inn compound

Room In The Inn was started by a Catholic priest named Charles Strobel (“Charlie” to those who know him). But note: Room In The Inn isn’t a Catholic organization. At least, not exactly. More than anything else, it’s nondenominational, but even that’s not the right word. It’s more like this nonprofit is a powerful secular machine built to help the poor but powered by a Christian center. 

If we’re being honest with ourselves, though, this organization has a lot of religious trappings. Even the name Room In The Inn is religious: it’s an allusion to the No Vacancy signs that forced the biblical figures Mary and Joseph into the stable where Jesus was born. This simple story of a stable birth in an unstable world resonates with Jesus’ later teachings about the richest in Rome needing to take care of the poor, and it would be hard to find a better name for an organization that tries to give people a place to do exactly that. Room In The Inn is a constant reminder of Jesus’ humble beginnings and his difficult-to-digest teachings. 

But all of this peripheral religion that seems to power the Room In The Inn machine is not a bad thing. Religion, though sometimes an in-your-face ordeal, has a lot of good things going for it as well. Religious people can get pretty good at practicing compassion. Sometimes they can even get a sense of purpose out of doing the gritty work that no normal person would ever want to do. 

Charles Strobel suggested people try this gritty work every once in a while. He asked people to consider what happens when they sit down across from somebody whose life has been nothing but a string of tragedies. Suddenly that person’s abstract problems come into focus. That person becomes a real human being. 

*** 

Room In The Inn succeeds in an area that a lot of other nonprofits, both religious and secular, fail at. Jeff Moles said the organization raised more than $3.8 million in 2014. That huge chunk of change goes far considering that Room In The Inn spends 90% of the donations it receives on fighting homelessness. 90 cents to the dollar is a really good figure, especially considering a lot of nonprofits spend much larger percentages of the donations they receive on administrative costs. 

And the money they raise is quite effective, according to Moles. “There are lots of redemption stories that come from our community,” he said. “We don’t always see success the way the rest of the world does. It often means little things, like a day of sobriety, or a class attended, or an appointment kept. We have had many people placed into housing who are now doing really well. There can be a night and day difference between someone’s condition on the streets, and then when they are housed. So many people have regained a sense of hope and self-worth.” 

Arts and craftsWorking with the homeless is transformational for the volunteers as well. “Room In The Inn,” said Moles, “is an opportunity for people who might otherwise have no contact with one another to develop relationships and be transformed by the power of hospitality and love.” 

That’s a sentiment echoed by Edith Costanza, an art therapist who has worked with Room In The Inn for over a decade. “I have come to live in this place of overwhelming gratitude,” she said, “where I take nothing for granted. To serve others (and we all do in our individual ways) is a responsibility, a grace, and a privilege.” 

*** 

Charles Strobel, the founder of Room In The Inn, has been championing the cause of transformation through good works for a long time. At a recent dinner at a Catholic school in Nashville, Strobel told the history of his organization and asked for the community’s continued generosity. 

Strobel said he started Room In The Inn in 1986 after bulldozers uprooted many of the homeless who lived in a shantytown in the path of future condo developments down by the Cumberland River. These men started showing up at his church, Holy Name, looking for shelter, and he let several of them in that first night, even though he only had a hard floor and a jar of peanut butter to offer them. 

Nearly thirty years later, it’s amazing to think of Room In The Inn’s humble beginnings. Part of the organization’s success over the years has had to do with Strobel’s unique personality and his eccentric presentation style. 

An audience member at the Catholic school where Strobel recently spoke recalled hearing him speak fifteen years ago. Strobel had brought with him that night a companion who was obviously homeless. This man's clothes were dirty and torn. He had long hair and an untamed beard. He shuffled around the room trying to talk to people. And people were polite, but they were mostly just that. They tried to ignore him, hoping that he would go away, just like the problems of poverty and homelessness. 

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The homeless man did not go away, however. When Strobel got up on stage, the man joined him. And as Strobel talked about the initiatives Room In The Inn had undertaken, how they had helped countless people in Nashville, the homeless man started taking off his clothes, one article at a time—a raggedy shoe here, a greasy shirt there—until finally he had stripped down to the three-piece suit underneath. 

He took out a comb and slicked back his hair. He brushed his hand through his beard and patted it down until it suddenly looked a lot less untamed. He put on a pair of glasses and a nice pair of shoes. 

Nothing had changed except his outward appearance, but the crowd took the point to heart: sometimes we judge a person based solely on his appearance. The change in the room was noticeable. At first, people might have been uncomfortable at having their noses rubbed in their own assumptions, but Strobel is such an amiable person, and he doesn’t come to judge people. He comes to teach and to help people understand how they can help. 

The once-homeless man now spoke to the room. He said he had recently been living on the street after he had lost it all. He had once been successful, but his wife had died. He had lost his job. As he spiraled into depression and alcoholism, his remaining family wanted nothing to do with him. He lived on the street until he found help at Room In The Inn. They brought him back from hopelessness. 

*** 

Nashville needs to do more to help its homeless. Strobel has been making this argument for a long time, and it’s one that everybody needs to hear. Poverty and prosperity, he argued, have nothing to do with one’s immorality or morality. If an individual or a family is poor, they may have simply fallen victim to a cruel social structure that is indifferent to their plight. Food stamps, Medicaid, housing vouchers—these are all forms of assistance whose continued existence depend on a dysfunctional legislature getting along. So good luck with that. 

Also, legislators aren’t always the most compassionate people toward the poor. The poor, after all, don’t contribute very much to campaign finances. Christians, on the other hand, are supposed to be passionate (no matter what!) about helping the poor. And now here’s the knife twisting in the gut: they can’t ask for anything in return. 

That, according to Strobel, is why a religious organization dedicated to helping the poor is better positioned than even a governmental social services agency. To confront and change the barriers that keep an area’s poorest from true prosperity, people don’t just need rules and regulations and government policies, but also passion and a thirst for change. The Christian religion is founded on the teachings of a poor preacher, the lowest of the low. A governmental agency is required to remain indifferent—or, in more innocuous terms, objective

People such as Strobel who work with the poor will tell you that the problem with society’s response to poverty is easy to see. He said people typically do not see themselves reflected in the poor. And so it’s easy for people to fail to see the poor as humans, equally deserving of respect and dignity.

It sounds like Strobel is onto something. There’s been a lot of talk recently about how, when a person has too much money, he loses empathy for his fellow human beings. Michael Lewis wrote about this phenomenon recently, as have many others. Citing Lewis (among other popular writers), NPR has also commented on how prominent a theme income inequality has become in our national discussion. 

So the next question is this: are Americans becoming more cognizant of the problems of income inequality? 

Charles Strobel hopes so. He listed the lack of affordable housing in Nashville as the biggest problem facing this booming, affluent city right now. Gentrification is a huge problem, he said, with prosperous people coming into old neighborhoods, rebuilding and reinvigorating them, and then pricing the poor out of them. Strobel suggested that people who want to see more affordable housing should join their city councils. There are some positive signs that Nashvillians are paying more attention to this problem. The Tennessean recently reported that community leaders are calling for more affordable housing and pooling their resources to make sure the job gets done.

Dining rommJeff Moles agreed with Strobel that Nashville’s lack of adequate housing for the poor is one of the city’s greatest challenges. He painted a bleak picture of what it’s like for a family barely holding on to wait for a placement. Moles said, “People can literally wait years for housing assistance, receive a housing voucher, and then find no one willing to house them. We need more affordable housing, and more landlords who are willing to work with people whose previous records with housing haven’t been great, but who have worked to make changes in their lives. Housing saves lives.” 

It’s comforting to know that, no matter what direction the scandal-ridden Catholic Church takes, no matter what happens with Nashville’s affordable housing crisis, Room In The Inn, a Nashville institution for nearly thirty years, isn’t going anywhere. According to Moles, “19 other cities have replicated Nashville’s Room In The Inn model.” Room In The Inn has been living Pope Francis’ message since 1986, and hopefully this message will continue to spread. 

Still, even deeply rooted organizations need continuous help. When asked what Room In The Inn can do better, Moles replied they need more churches to help out. “Unfortunately,” he said, “we cannot always live up to our name—there is not always ‘room in the inn’ and we have to turn away people who are seeking a refuge from the elements. We need to continue to grow our congregational shelter program. More congregations need to be involved in sheltering people during the winter months. It can be as simple as being on call for extremely cold nights, or hosting a few nights during the season. We desperately need beds to keep people warm in the winter months.” 

For more information on Room In The Inn, check out their website, or if you're in a running mood, register now for the Hill YEAH! 5k benefiting Room In The Inn and Nashville's homeless on February 7th

 

 

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 166 - September 2152
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