An Oklahoma City pastor often thinks of the elementary school where he met the woman he would later marry.
That's because the Rev. Ernie Tullis and his wife, Terri, have returned to Mark Twain Elementary School, 2451 W Main, and the neighborhood where they grew up in order to spread the love of Christ.
Ernie Tullis is pastor of Tri-Church, a Southern Baptist church that meets on Sundays in the school's gymnasium. He said his music career took him away from the Westlawn Gardens neighborhood, also known as Mulligan Flats, but God called him back to his hometown and home turf for ministry's sake.
“Matthew 5:16 says we're the light of the world. We're to do good things and people will see God,” he said. “Well, we're in a neighborhood where there are lots of opportunities to do good.”
Terri Tullis shared similar sentiments.
“I have the same passion, and the feeling that God has brought us here for a purpose,” she said.
“We may not be in the same situations as the people we're ministering to but we have understanding being from the neighborhood — and it's so easy to love people.”
Ernie Tullis said in addition to leasing Mark Twain Elementary for Sunday morning church services, Tri-Church has initiated and paid for special art projects for the school's students. And the pastor recently started free Saturday music lessons for students interested in learning how to play acoustic or electric guitar, piano, drums, bass and even the ukulele.
Also, he said while the women of the church and neighborhood meet for midweek Bible study, the men spread out into the surrounding residential area to work on projects like fence repair and the construction of a wheelchair ramp at one neighbor's home.
The church also provided socks and underwear for each student and provided Christmas presents and food for about 20 students' families, Tullis said
He said the neighborhood is made up of many low-income families, most of whom had not been attending church.
Tullis, former music minister at Northwest Baptist Church, said his church has grown since its 2010 inception, primarily due to the addition of first-generation Christians who are bringing their friends and family members to learn more about a loving God.
“To walk with people — to bring light where there has been darkness, that's my mission,” he said. “What if we saw that happen in every neighborhood?”
Tim Gentry, evangelism group leader with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said Tri-Church's commitment to community outreach is what the convention's new initiative “Serve Oklahoma” (ServeOklahoma.org) is all about.
“It's a small church but I tell you, it's making a difference at that school,” he said.
The new initiative was launched at the convention's annual evangelism conference in January.
Gentry said many Southern Baptist churches across Oklahoma are already immersed in community service projects. He said “Serve Oklahoma” is a way to encourage those churches to continue their efforts and to look at new and different ways to reach out to the community. Gentry said the initiative also is a way to give some creative ideas to churches who lack community outreach programs.
“We are hoping Oklahoma Baptists will be going out into their community and getting more intentionally involved in serving,” Gentry said.
He said many Baptist churches don't tell about all the things they do for surrounding communities because they don't want to brag. Gentry said at the same time, there are congregations “who don't see opportunities all around them to serve.”
Gentry said he thinks some churches have been discouraged by communities that rejected church aid to public schools over the years. He said times have changed and there is so much that needs to be done that ways can be found to help and serve without violating any rules.
“There are so many needs out there. People aren't going to ask what church we're from, they'll just say ‘thank you,'” he predicted.
Gentry said “Serve Oklahoma” recommends that churches encourage their small groups like Sunday school classes to develop and implement community projects. He said the initiative provides a list of service projects ranging from recycling cans and sending the money to local mission programs to building Habitat for Humanity homes.
Each church that gets involved with “Serve Oklahoma” may purchase lime green wristbands with the initiative's logo. Proceeds from the sale of the wristbands will go to the initiative's charity of choice: Tulsa's Dayspring Villa, a faith-based certified domestic violence shelter for women and their children.
Sandy Phillips, the principal of Mark Twain Elementary, said she is grateful for the support of Tri-Church.
She said in addition to the various art and music projects provided by the church, Tri-Church also provides emergency help for students and their parents. For example, she said Tri-Church bought groceries for a family after a student's father told her he had no food for his loved ones. She said the pastors also counseled a parent who was going through a rough time.
“They meet a lot of physical needs for my families — they just do a lot of the community,” Phillips said.
As for Tullis, he said the church hopes to offer after-school programming for students after a 2014 school expansion project is completed.
He said he told his wife that it would not be a bad thing if the church remained in the neighborhood for 20 years and never acquired its own building.
“I said what if we didn't build any buildings and our name wasn't on anything but we simply saw God change lives?” Tullis said.
“I can live with that.”