A downtown Oklahoma City apartment building that once was a haven for crack addicts and prostitutes is now home to a ministry community of urban missionaries.
The Refuge ministry community was founded by Tim Ulrich, a Californian who visited the Oklahoma City area in 2007 with plans to sell the dismal building he owned across from the City Rescue Mission homeless shelter. The structure was a notorious magnet for criminal activity.
But Ulrich, 36, said the Lord told him to take something that was being used for evil and turn it into something good.
With help from many people and groups, that's what he has done.
The Refuge building at 823 W California now has 22 apartment units that are full of 20- and 30-somethings who have made it their goal to reach out to the homeless and indigent downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Their idea is not just to serve the down and out, but to live among them, sharing their Christian faith in words and actions.
There is a waiting list of other mission-minded hopefuls who want to be a part of the community.
Ulrich said he spoke enthusiastically in 2007 about his God-given vision for the Refuge even as he stepped over filthy mattresses, assorted dilapidated appliances and trash in the old building.
Privately, he wondered if it would ever happen.
“I remember hearing recommendations from people who said the best thing to do is bulldoze it,” Ulrich said recently.
The building's transformation is “all the Lord's doing,” he said. “I never thought there would be this much momentum.”
The Rev. Tom Jones, City Rescue Mission's executive director, said the Refuge community members are “wonderful partners in ministry.”
Jones said his office faces California Avenue, and he often sees someone at the Refuge bring a couch onto the sidewalk that soon is surrounded by homeless people who are made to feel accepted and loved by the Refuge group.
He said many homeless people refuse to go into the shelter for various reasons, and some are ostracized because they may look, act or smell different from the norm.
Jones said the Refuge members have made it a point to embrace these people.
“They are consistent and tireless in their efforts to build relationships with the street homeless,” he said.
Work happens by bits
Ulrich now lives at the Refuge with his wife and children.
His longtime friend, Joe Quinlan, also moved to the metro area from California, in 2008, and now lives in one of the apartment units.
Quinlan said there are about 60 people who are part of the Refuge community.
Ulrich said the extensive renovation work occurred “little by little” over the years. He said they began by going out and picking up trash along the sidewalks and streets outside the apartment building, hoping to start conversations and give others an opportunity to join them in the neighborhood restoration process.
Quinlan said thousands of dollars were poured into the project to refurbish the Refuge and its surroundings, and much time and material were donated.
Quinlan, 36, said most of the group lives in the building, where several of them meet regularly for prayer time and a dinner of rice and beans.
But he said some of the Refuge ministry missionaries have begun an effort to “re-neighbor” a neighborhood south of the Refuge building.
Quinlan said the Refuge is refurbishing several rental homes near Shartel and SW 6, and the community has bought one residence with the idea some of the missionaries will live in the homes.
Quinlan, community development director for The Spero Project nonprofit organization, said most of the Refuge residents have jobs and use their time and days off getting to know and serving their downtown neighbors.
“I think the common unity we all share is we're a community of believers that have a commitment to following Jesus wherever He leads us,” Quinlan said.
‘Liked the idea'
Matt Floyd, 27, said he became part of the Refuge about 2½ years ago and brought his wife, Katie, 25, there after they married. Now the couple hope to move out of the apartment building with their 13-month-old son and into one of the refurbished neighborhood homes that Floyd has been fixing up.
Floyd said he met Ulrich through a homeless man they both knew, and he began to believe in Ulrich's vision for the Refuge.
“I liked the idea of being the Church in the city,” he said.
‘Army of amateurs'
Stan Reyes is a homeowner in the neighborhood where the Refuge community has focused its latest efforts. He said he has lived in the neighborhood about 25 years, and the Refuge members are helping improve the area.
“These properties either had to come down or they had to have people come in and start fixing on them. No one else would have done it,” Reyes said. “With the landlords living in other states, they would never have put in the time and effort into them that these guys have.”
Quinlan said the ministry community is “an army of amateurs” who have received a lot of advice, but they prefer to reject an “arm's length” form of ministry in favor of their current approach.
He said the ministry group's decision to live in the area may seem extreme to some, but this is the members' collective calling. He said it is a far cry from his job as a real estate broker and the 3,000-square-foot home in a good school district that he thought was part of his life plan.
“In many ways, we don't know what we're doing, and that's OK. We're trying to walk by the Spirit,” Quinlan said. “In Luke, chapter 5, it says the fishermen left everything to follow Jesus. They left everything that made sense. They left their predestined path and followed Jesus, not even knowing where they were going.”
The Rev. Trevor Williams, campus pastor of LifeChurch.tv Edmond, said he has worked closely over the years with Ulrich, Quinlan and the Refuge community. He said he has been impressed with the ministry community's efforts.
“They were like a tipping point — a catalyst for change in that area, along with Tom Jones and City Rescue Mission,” Williams said.
He said there are several places in the downtown where a poor hungry individual can find a meal. However, Williams said the “real poverty” is relational.
“People are starving for relationship. They are starving for people who are willing to pour into their lives. That is what Tim and his group are doing,” Williams said.
Williams said the Refuge community has had a big influence on city churches, and many who have been compelled to start their own ministries for the poor and homeless.
“I have been educated in many ways as they have walked out their journey,” Williams said. “I'm proud of them.”