A Lifetime of Serving the Mission
By Greg Bolt
The Register Guard
To everything there is a season, including retirement.
And after 50 years as the guiding light of the Eugene Mission, the season of retirement has finally come for Ernie Unger. Early in the new year he plans to step down as executive director of the mission, a post he has held since 1962, two years after he went to work for the mission full time.
He will be joined in retirement by his wife, Pat, who has worked with him at the mission for most of that half century as the homeless center went from being homeless itself to an 11-building campus on five acres on West First Avenue. Unger said they don’t have particular plans, other than continuing as community volunteers.
“We felt together this would be a time I should be stepping down and not get so old they have to haul me out,” said Unger, who turns 76 in March. “There’s a time for everything, I guess.”
Just as there was a time to give up a solid job in a Springfield lumber mill to answer a calling to help others. Unger experienced his own religious conversion at a crusade at the county fairgrounds in 1958 and the next year heard the calling to help at the mission, which was then at Sixth Avenue and Willamette Street.
He kept working at the mill for a year or so, but his heart already was with the men at the homeless shelter, which was about to lose its home to urban renewal. He said a former co-worker at the mill recently came up to him and said he’ll never forget going out to check a lumber stack one night “and there you were on your knees praying about the mission,” the man recalled.
“I was so burdened for the mission,” Unger recalled of those days. “It had lost its site and was just going to go away. It was certainly the call of God for my life to help the mission.”
And for the past 50 years, nearly every waking moment of Unger’s life has been spent on the mission and the people it serves. After finally finding its current site and breaking ground for the first building in 1966, the mission has grown to its current 11 buildings, with a new women’s center scheduled to open in mid-2011.
That first building on the then-new site http://smartessaywriter.net/ would have beds for 50 men. The mission now has more than 400 beds for men, single women and women with children, and serves more than 600 meals a day to people in need.
And it does that without accepting any tax dollars. The mission relies on donations from individuals, churches and businesses; foundation grants; and its longtime newspaper recycling business. Unger said the mission made a conscious decision not to seek public tax support out of concern that doing so would prevent them from what he sees as its main mission: being a church to the homeless.
After three nights, guests are required to pay $2 a night or earn a bed voucher by helping out around the mission. Everyone must attend the one-hour chapel service, a requirement that doesn’t sit well with some homeless advocates.
But Unger has never wavered on the requirement. “If I listened to them, I’m listening to the wrong person,” he said. “I need to be listening to God when he says to go and preach the gospel.”
Besides, Unger says there’s “an army of Christians” in the community who want to support a place where the gospel is given to people along with food and shelter. And he said the community has been very good to the Eugene Mission.
The operation has a budget of about $1.5 million a year and spends more than 70 percent of it providing services to the homeless. It has a staff of just 20, about half of whom live at the mission.
“The mission is a God thing, and the Lord has certainly blessed it,” Unger said. “And this is a great community. The Eugene community really takes care of the mission.”
But so has Unger, and now it is someone else’s turn. The mission’s board has selected veteran business executive Jack Tripp of Massachusetts to succeed Unger beginning Feb. 1. Tripp currently is vice president of Global Interconnect, a company that produces custom wire harnesses and cable assemblies for industries.
Tripp has said he, too, has felt the calling to serve God and wants to use his skills and experience in the business world to help people in need. He and his wife, Dale, are in the process of moving to Eugene.
Unger said he and his wife will continue to be active in the community. He’d like to help out with the chapel program at the county jail and perhaps serve in other ways.
In other words, he’s not done giving.
“Someone said to me, ‘God’s got a special place for you and Pat for all the sacrifice that you’ve made.’ And I say to them, ‘Thank you, but you’ve missed something,’ ” Unger said. “It hasn’t been a sacrifice; it’s been a privilege. And it is a privilege to help your fellow man.”