‘A trophy of grace’ Mission leader trusts God with the detour time

Published 12:10 am Sunday, May 23, 2010

He’s “been there, done that and don’t do that no more.”

That’s one really good reason why Earnie Hall is the right person to be at the helm of the River City Rescue Mission.

When he took over as director last September, he was no stranger to the program or to Vicksburg. He came here in 1992, stayed at the Mission for 11 months, and admits when he left he was not a very good Christian and was soon back on the streets and in jail.

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“But, the Lord never quit on me. I went almost full circle and He brought me back to His house. I’ve been to every kind of treatment center there is, and I’ve been stoned after each one, but when I met Jesus, He took it away.”

The purpose of River City Rescue Mission, simply stated, is that it is a haven for the homeless, offers food for the hungry, provides hope for the hopeless and a positive foundation in Christ.

As director, Earnie has to wear a lot of hats, from driving a truck, to cooking, running the thrift store, cleaning toilets, bookkeeping, teaching, preaching, banking — whatever needs doing.

His first love, though, is preaching, and he feels blessed that “The Lord has set me free. I really believe that’s what God has called us to do, to go back and help people like ourselves.”

He feels that the Holy Spirit is the director of the mission: “I’m just a chaplain because I couldn’t do it without Him.”

Earnie’s folks are from Baltimore and he grew up in Virginia Beach, Va. He dropped out of school, joined the Marines and went through several marriages.

What were his problems?

“You name it,” he said. “I was a drug addict for 25 years, in and out of jail the whole time, was homeless.”

Not an enviable record, but he believes, “God uses every bit of that to help people like me. When I talk to the fellows here, we’re on the same page. What the Lord has done for me all points to the realm of healing and restoration. If God can take me from here to here, then it really opens up miracles for others — I really believe that. It opens up a whole new realm of spirituality where people can change.”

When someone comes to the mission for help, Earnie says, “We put it to them this way: You came here looking for a program of change. That means everything needs to change.”

They don’t like that, he said, because they feel their rights are being taken away from them because of stringent rules, but he tells them: “The way you were thinking in the streets obviously was not working. For a short time in your life, you come here and learn a different lifestyle. Things can change for you.”

Men come to the mission from just about everywhere, hearing of the place by word of mouth, and Earnie said it is amazing how word travels. Currently, there are residents from as far away as Wyoming and Chicago.

It’s not just a rescue mission, he said, for a program of Christian rehabilitation is also offered, a program that attacks the hurts, habits and hangups and the sin nature, “getting it out of your body and again walking in the Spirit.”

The rules are strict, and the staff is expected to lead by example “because they live here, and they’ve risen through the ranks.” There’s no smoking, no drinking in the all-male facility, and what’s read in magazines and heard on the radio and TV are controlled. Anyone who doesn’t go by the rules is asked to leave.

River City Rescue Mission has 34 beds and 27 residents. Earnie feels the need for both reformation and restoration, to give a hand up, not just house someone for a minute, but to give them hope, a plan for life. Education for the men is one of the goals he has and hopes to get GED classes started. He got his GED when he was in a treatment center.

“It’s hard to get a job without an education,” he said. He stressed career development — computer skills, how to write a resume and how to dress for an interview — “for most of these men have been to prison and back. They’ve never had a track record of success or have blown every opportunity. How do you regroup, walk them back into society? We want to give them something spiritually, but they still have to face that sidewalk.”

The program lasts four months, with some extensions so that one can enter the work field and get on his feet. There are numerous success stories, and Earnie pointed out that one man was a hard case who had come through the courts, but he completed the course, was baptized last week and now has a job, a vehicle and a place to live.

Not all are so successful, for of the 8,100 men who came through the mission last year, 115 graduated from the program, “a small percentage, but if you’ve touched 115 lives, that’s successful,” and Earnie is hoping to increase those numbers “through the power of the Spirit.”

In addition to spiritual guidance, last year River City Rescue Mission provided 41,950 hot meals (three per day); and gave food assistance to 1,516 and shelter to 4,396. More than 4,300 items were sold in the thrift store.

He quickly points out that the work is a team effort. In addition to a small staff, he has a board of directors with Gene Allen as president, Jack Curtis as vice president and Bill Flathau as treasurer. Board members are Freddie Abraham, O.W, Mendrop, Hugh Green, Robert Sanders, David Sterling and Charlie Tolliver. All are working members, Earnie said, all committed to the program.

Ironically, Earnie didn’t want to come to Vicksburg, and he recalls being mad at God and wondering, “Why’d you bring me to Vicksburg?” He had lived in Shreveport for about 10 years after he was discharged from the Marines. He said he was running, looking for a place to go — but not Vicksburg.

He hopped a freight train, got off at the foot of Fairground Street and walked up the hill to Washington, looking for a Friends of Alcoholics headquarters. He opened the door to a business and, before he could speak, the lady behind the desk said, “The Lord told me to send you to the mission.”

He walked down the street and was so nasty — “I hadn’t had a bath in six weeks” — that the man at the mission pushed back from his desk. Earnie said he was running from the dope man, from the law man, had no idea where he was going, almost froze to death in that boxcar and started praying. He was welcomed at the mission.

He planned to stay one night and hasn’t left. That was in 1992. Here, he often worked as a cook and at Keystone Ministries and also is chaplain at the jail, “which was great training — an education you can’t get out of a book. I’ve learned, am still learning, what it takes to walk free.”

For the men who come through the mission, Earnie said, “They need a handshake, a hug and encouraging words. They need mentors.” And, he emphasized, the power of prayer.

The program is done without any government funding, its physical success depending on donations, sales through the thrift shop and sometimes the ministry sponsors a golf tournament.

“I’m a firm believer that God will provide all we need,” Earnie said. “We don’t have to ask for it. If we line up with God, He’s going to take care of us. I’m not just talking theory. I’m talking experience. I had $4 in my pocket when I got here, but the Lord has blessed me with a nice home, a good Christian wife, a family. Of course, I have debts, too, but He’s shown me how to get out of that. My pastor calls me a trophy of grace, and I say, ‘Well, that’s all of us.’”

Economically, times are tough and it doesn’t help that River City Rescue Mission is within sight of the Washington Street bridge that has been closed for months.

But Earnie is optimistic: “I trust God with the detour sign. He directed me here. He can direct others here.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.