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Sending out an SOS

Pastor wants to help unemployed

STERLING – Lonely. Cold. Hopeless.

That’s how a Sterling man – who did not want to be identified – described his 3 years on the streets, struggling to find work.

Today, he lives at Firehouse of God Ministries – still without steady employment.

The Rev. Randy L. Ernst of Sterling wants to change that. He plans to launch a new ministry called Salvage Operation: Souls – a mission to “employ the unemployable” in the Sauk Valley.

Workers will sell auto parts to earn income and start a new life. They will include the homeless; people with criminal backgrounds, including the recently paroled; and recipients of drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

Ernst, a 56-year-old associate pastor of The Big Red Church, relates to the down and out. Years ago, he lived in a van – scared and alone – for 4 months.

“I’ve been there,” he said. “I know what that feels like.”

Ernst recently shared his vision with residents of Firehouse of God Ministries, which provides meals, housing and rehab services.

He wants to hire people to dismantle donated vehicles, catalog parts and stock them in a warehouse. SOS will receive vehicles from individuals, companies and salvage pools.

Through SOS, Ernst will marry his passions – ministry and cars.

“I’ve always been a car guy,” he said.

Workers will sell parts to auto body and repair shops, “do-it-yourselfers” and Internet customers. Unusable parts will be sold for scrap metal. SOS will be the only salvage operation within a 1-hour drive in any direction, Ernst said.

Sales will help pay workers’ wages.

Another Firehouse resident – who also did not want to be identified – looks forward to the opportunity. Employers do not consider him an ideal candidate because he has two DUIs.

“You’ve got to have income to have a life, to pay your bills,” he said. “It would make me feel good about myself again.

“Everybody deserves a second chance. People make mistakes.”

Ernst agreed.

“To have to pay for those mistakes for the rest of your life is unconscionable,” he said.

SOS staff will train workers to ship and receive, procure parts, control inventory, enter data, drive forklifts and tow trucks, weld, cut, operate air tools, and clean facilities. They will work in an environment free of drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

SOS board members and volunteers will mentor workers to instill values, character, morals and integrity. Board members include the Rev. Jeff Coester, pastor of the Big Red Church; the Rev. Brian Tribley, pastor of Firehouse of God Ministries; Linda Dirks of Prophetstown, who serves as secretary and treasurer; and Mark Zumdahl, a Sterling attorney.

Workers will acquire skills for future employment and receive a credible reference.

“That’s worth its weight in gold,” Ernst said.

SOS will operate under Firehouse’s nonprofit status until securing its own. SOS also needs to secure a workspace and insurance. Ernst seeks financial support from the community to make the ministry possible.

The SOS slogan is “Selling Parts … Investing in People.”

To help

Leaders of Salvage Operation: Souls request prayers and financial contributions to pay for wages, rent, utilities and insurance. Cash donations are tax deductible – dollar for dollar.

Make checks payable to “Firehouse of God Ministries” and write “SOS” in the memo-line. Donations may be mailed to Firehouse of God, 306 Fifth Ave., Sterling, IL 61081.

In addition, vehicles – any year, make or model – are “wanted dead or alive.” SOS will tow vehicles for free.

Volunteers are needed.

The Rev. Randy Ernst is available to present to churches and organizations.

For more information, go to or call Ernst at 586-260-5074.

Not many people have “invested” in the man who lived on the streets for 3 years. People judge him, he said.

But not Ernst.

“We care about you,” he told the men after his presentation. “We love you.”

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