By RICK WATSON
Homewood native and Shades Valley High School graduate Tom Zobel’s young life was the stuff country songs are made of. Local boy has too much fun in high school, majors in partying in college, starts a family too early, makes a bundle in business, becomes an alcoholic, then watches his life fall apart through the bottom of a glass. It would be a sad song if it had ended there. But it didn’t.
This year Zobel became the director of the Brother Bryan Mission in Birmingham after serving in a similar role at the Union Gospel Rescue Mission in Salem, Oregon. Through his work, he’s touched the lives of thousands of people.
“I left Nashville after I went bankrupt,” he said. “I’d lost my family, my business, my friends and my home.” Zobel drifted to Florida, New Orleans, then Colorado. He picked up menial jobs because most good jobs required a background check, which he wanted to avoid.
History kept repeating itself for Zobel. “My life had been built on the wrong foundation,” he said. “I got to the point where I didn’t want to continue.”
He wound up out west in Salem, Oregon, sleeping in boxcars and railway shacks. He cleaned gutters and picked tomatoes to earn enough money for food.
Then someone suggested that Zobel go to the local rescue mission where he could find shelter and a warm meal.
For the first time in his life, he found a place were he felt he belonged. He started rebuilding the foundation of his life. He studied the gospels at the rescue mission and got involved with a local church. He quit drinking, cleaned his life up and met his future wife, Debbie, at the church he attended.
After a while, Zobel received a job offer in Beaverton as manager of a shopping mall. At that point in his recovery he was afraid to leave the safety of the mission and the church in Salem. But his pastor told him he was ready, and, as it turned out, he was.
Zobel performed well at the new job but kept going back to the Union Gospel Rescue Mission as a volunteer. One day, while talking to the director of the mission, Zobel realized his heart was set on mission work.
The director told Zobel he couldn’t afford to pay what he was earning as a mall manager, but he took the job anyhow. Once back in Salem, he married Debbie, and the two have worked together in the mission field ever since.
Eight years later, Zobel became the director and before long a board member and later a vice-president of an association with some 300 other rescue missions across the country. It was through the organization that Zobel met fellow board member Tony Cooper of Jimmie Hale Mission in Birmingham.
Fast forward to 2008: Zobel was getting ready to retire, but wanted to move back to Homewood. He’d mended relationships with his children and wanted to live closer to them. He called Tony Cooper to ask about the possibility of working part-time at Jimmie Hale as a chaplain. Cooper agreed and Zobel moved home.
He began doing unpaid consulting work with smaller rescue missions. When he looked into the Brother Bryan Mission, there was a meeting of the minds, and on July 1, Zobel was hired as director.
Zobel and his staff of five are transitioning Brother Bryan’s creation into a full-fledged rescue mission. He plans to expand the facility on 1616 2nd Avenue North to add classroom space, a parking lot and a laundry facility. In six months to a year, he hopes to help build a new foundation of discipline and accountability for men who are adrift.
In all these plans, Zobel’s passion for people remains. “Helping to change lives is what I was put here to do.”
To find out more information about Brother Bryan Mission’s work, visit www.brotherbryanmission.com.