Cooper: Fender's ministry of compassion

Cooper: Fender's ministry of compassion

February 2nd, 2016 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Brother Ron Fender, at the time a case worker for the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, tends to the feet of a homeless man.

Photo by Kathleen Cole

Brother Ron Fender was, to many people who encountered him in Chattanooga, the closest person to Mother Teresa they were likely to meet.

The Brotherhood of St. Gregory monk, who passed away at age 61 on Friday after being in New York for a time of renewal with members of his brotherhood, had for many years been an outreach case manager with the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.

Falstaffian in his appearance, he was the opposite in person, exuding love, humility and acceptance to those with whom he came in contact.

And those with whom Fender came in contact, as with Mother Teresa, were often those the rest of the public would just as soon scorn or disregard — the homeless, the drug addicted, the dirty.

For many years, he could be seen living with them in St. Matthew's Shelter at Second Presbyterian Church and walking with them from the building on Pine Street to the Community Kitchen on East 11th Street.

Fender, in speaking to this newspaper several years ago, said when he turned 40 he realized he didn't have "a whole lot to bring to the world."

To ponder what he might do, he entered a Massachusetts monastery to discern and pray. He felt he could spend the rest of his life there, "praying and meditating and being in that holy place."

"The last thing I wanted to do," Fender said, "was to end up on the streets with homeless people." But after glimpsing while there what he envisioned as "Christ eating out of a garbage can," he couldn't turn away.

So for many years, he could be seen cutting the filthy, gnarled toenails of homeless men, scouring interstate underpasses for homeless families and advocating for a better final resting place for the homeless dead at Cofer Cemetery.

Yet, Fender, raised in Asheville, N.C., had another side. He loved to laugh, tell stories and even occasionally take a turn at his old profession, theater, by directing a show for the Chattanooga Theatre Centre.

People may be surprised to learn, he said, that "I have a past, that I am very much just a person."

That he chose to be "just a person" in and among the least, the last and the lost in this town is Chattanooga's fortune.

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