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.