By William Smith
The Lord was calling Fred Starling to the ministry at an early age. But he was far too stubborn to listen.
“I didn’t want God to find me,” he said.
Rev. Starling, who founded Faith Temple Church of God in Christ in 1975, has been a stalwart of the Burlington community for the past 50 years. He’s a prominent voice at Juneteenth and a leader in the Black community.
But in his youth, Starling said he was a bit of a “crooked arrow” — but only a bit. A young man from Arkansas who attended a segregated school, Starling wanted to make his way in the world and find a dependable living. He grew up on a farm and was already steeped in faith and hard work.
He moved to Keokuk to help an aunt who ran a successful restaurant and owned investment property, he then returned to Arkansas to attend Shorter College in Little Rock. In 1960, he returned to Iowa.
Money was foremost on Starling’s mind back then. He chuckles about his misguided priorities now.
“I got into the nightclub business, and I thought I could make some money. That lasted about two years,” he said.
Starling worked hard at every job he had — that’s just how he was raised. His farm experience as an Arkansas youth led to other farm jobs, where he would spend the day picking tomatoes and other crops. He worked for John Deere and briefly served in the Army in 1966.
But none of it clicked. Starling couldn’t find the peace in his heart he sought. He eventually made his way north to be with family in Burlington.
That’s when Starling’s life came into focus.
“Next thing you know, here comes the ministry,” Starling said.
God Speaks – Starling Listens
Starling’s path to the Lord started when he had a vision. He’ll never forget the date — Oct. 20, 1971. It was a Saturday.
“I found my purpose. I found the reason God put me on the planet,” he said.
Starling was already a parishioner of St. John’s Church in Burlington, and was close to the pastor, Rev. Robert E. Clay. Starling was 30 years old and had been fishing when he received the calling.
For some reason, Starling began feeling extremely relaxed as he fished. He lay on the ground without a care in the world. His mind, usually stuffed with one worry or another, had evacuated.
“I had never felt anything like it,” Starling said.
Later that day, at 1708 Mount Pleasant Street, Starling got his call from God. After nine years in Burlington, he knew his true purpose.
“I received a divine calling,” he said.
The light of his life
Fred met his late wife Vivienne shortly after he moved to Burlington, though she never imagined she would marry him. She was living in an apartment house with her baby brother and a sister, and Fred’s aunt owned the house next door.
“He used to come over and cut the grass,” Vivienne said in a previous interview. “My mother kept telling me I was going to marry him. She said he had a crush on me.”
Starling certainly wouldn’t deny that. He recalls sitting on the porch in the evenings. Many nights, Vivienne would sit next to him.
“We became friends, and then that turned into a relationship,” Starling said.
The two were finally married in 1968 and regularly attended church. Three years later, Starling got his calling and started preaching at St. John’s, where they attended.
Vivienne had known Fred to be a quiet man (she jokingly referred to him as her ‘silent partner’). She was pleasantly surprised by his decision to become a minister.
“I saw him stay at the altar a little longer, and I wondered why, but I didn’t know,” she said. “Our pastor, Robert Clay, came over that night and told me, ‘Fred’s being called to preach.’ He said. ‘You’re going to learn how to be a preacher’s wife.’”
As a woman of faith, it was a role Vivienne took to with gusto. The soft-spoken pastor she married transformed into an exuberant ball of God energy when he got behind the pulpit. At 82, Starling’s sermons are as passionate as when he was 50.
That passion spreads well beyond Faith Temple Church of God in Christ in Burlington. Starling’s central location is part of a west-central district of churches in Macomb, Ill., Kewanee, Ill., Rock Island, Ill., and Chicago. The Starlings traveled to them regularly, with Fred preaching and Vivienne reaching out to the youth and helping the less fortunate. They even traveled to Arkansas a few times a year to spread the word of God.
Building a church
Starling helped build the Calvary Baptist Church in Macomb, Ill., then purchased a former funeral home at 1012 Maple Street to turn into his home church.
The building wasn’t fit for a church, but it soon would be. Starling said he and his parishioners remodeled a portion of the building into the sanctuary, and he was preaching in there within three weeks.
Starling’s eyes fill with fond memories when he speaks of renovations to his church over the years. He never imagined he would be surrounded by such love and faith.
He attributes it all to God. As much as he tried to run away from it, God found him.
“I never wanted to be a leader. I don’t care about any of that. I’m just where God put me,” he said.
Starling serves all of God’s people, from the prisoners to the executives. He maintained a ministry at the Des Moines County Jail and the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. He dedicated a portion of his rental properties as temporary housing for the homeless.
Visions and miracles
Rev. Starling has had several visions throughout his life — private visions that he only shares with those closest to him.
“I don’t like to get too deep with it when I talk to people. They’ll lock me up in a mental hospital,” Starling said. “I’ve seen angels.”
Fred wasn’t the only one. His wife Vivienne would often share those visions with him – prophecies of preaching and praise yet to come.
“We would see the same thing. That’s how closely intertwined we were,” Starling said.
Starling has experienced miracles and has seen them personally. And when he nearly lost hearing in his left ear due to a freak hunting accident, it was God’s voice that healed him.
“It was a low, rumbling voice,” Starling said.
The hunting accident would have been funny if it weren’t so painful. Through the odd powers of physics and chance, Starling stepped on a stick that flipped up and pierced his left eardrum.
Starling doesn’t know how to describe the pain. He immediately pulled the stick out, and blood started gushing from his nose. By then, his ear was already bleeding.
Starling made it home in a daze, and his wife took him to the hospital. While the doctor didn’t tell him, he was considering plastic surgery on Starling’s eardrum to save his hearing.
Other than that, all the doctor could do was prescribe some pain medication and send Starling home. He told him to stay quiet and avoid loud noises.
Starling didn’t listen. And not because he couldn’t hear the doctor.
“I had a preaching engagement I didn’t want to miss,” he said.
Starling was already in a lot of pain, and could barely concentrate over the ringing in his head. When he started preaching, his own voice bounced around his skull like steel ball bearings, making the pain worse. But he kept preaching.
“Eventually, it sounded like my voice was going out instead of into my head,” Starling said.
But the pain and the ringing wouldn’t go away. He remembers laying on his injured ear one night, praying for God to take the pain away. That’s when he heard God’s voice telling him he would heal him.
The next morning, Starling’s pain was gone. There was no ringing. When he went to the doctor, the relived physician said Starling’s ear had healed perfectly.
“I still have all my hearing in this ear, and this ear,” a grinning Starling said, grabbing the tops of his ears.
A worn-out Bible
Starling doesn’t know how old his leather-bound Bible is. It’s stuffed with notes, sermons, information, and strategically placed Bible verses. Many pages are yellowed and dog-eared, held together by Scotch tape.
It’s the Bible that matters most to Starling. Not the church. Not the horn he blows or the purple robes he wears on occasion.
All of Starling’s truth comes from that overstuffed book. And simply reading it isn’t enough.
“You celebrate God through your works,” said Starling, who never stops working.