By Carla Hinton
A downtown Oklahoma City building adjacent to City Rescue Mission has been transformed from a crack house to a church house.
The bustling effort to repurpose a squalid apartment building at 823 W California was started a year ago by the new owner, who bought it without realizing it was a notorious haven for criminal activity.
As Californian Tim Ulrich painted the walls of the dilapidated building, a prostitute hiding from a pimp crept through the filthy rooms and pointed out a putrid mattress that had been used for illicit encounters.
Desperate people knocked on the doors and windows, looking for a crack fix or other illegal drugs.
Gang members surrounded him as he sat in his car, perhaps sizing up the person bold enough to step onto their territory.
Ulrich, 32, decided to sell the place. Quickly.
But God had other plans.
Ulrich partnered with several Oklahoma City area churches to renovate the building for use as The Refuge OKC ministry.
They are intent on making the building once known as a drug house and “Satan’s stronghold” into a ministry hub for churches and volunteers who want to help the homeless and indigent.
“I went from selling the building to thanking the Lord that He gave me this crazy building,” Ulrich said. “Our point is to be ‘the church’ down here. To be a light in darkness.”
Annamarie Slater is director of Bridgeway Church, one of the ministries partnering with Ulrich. She said The Refuge fits with the mission of her church at 228 W Hefner Road to meet people where they are.
“Ten months ago, it was a crack house. There was gang activity,” Slater said. “God’s just redeeming it and bringing it back so that it can be a refuge from the storm.”
Many weekends, volunteers from churches like Bridgeway, LifeChurch.tv, Mars Hills, Wildwood Calvary Chapel and New Covenant Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) visit The Refuge to work on restoring the building. Ulrich said some church groups have “adopted” rooms in the 25-unit building, refurbishing the floors, cleaning, installing cabinets and doors.
He said eventually he and others will live in the building as on-site “disciplers.”
“We are so excited, we can’t see straight,” said the Rev. Tom Jones, president and chief executive of City Rescue Mission, 800 W California.
“Right up until Tim bought it, that building was one of the biggest crack houses in the city. We really believe in what Tim’s doing and support it.”
Jones said the building’s proximity to City Rescue Mission previously proved tempting for people living at the faith-based homeless shelter and struggling to break free from drug or alcohol addictions.
“We were working diligently to get people off drugs, and they could go right across the street and get anything they wanted,” Jones said.
The Rev. Ronald Scott, pastor of Serenity Outreach Ministries, said he visited The Refuge after hearing about it from people involved with his ministry’s center for people recovering from substance abuse.
Scott said he was surprised and delighted that The Refuge had drawn young ministry-minded believers downtown.
Oklahoma City police Capt. Steve McCool said criminal activity at the building appeared to increase in 2006, based on the types of calls received. He said in 2005, there were five police reports regarding the address and in 2006, there were 24 reports. He said 18 police reports were made in 2007. He said the reports described problems such as public drunkenness, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, robbery and drug offenses.
Scott said after touring the building with Ulrich one day, he and the young minister prayed together.
“It really gave me a lot of hope,” Scott said. “My prayers are with him.”
Financial loss; spiritual gain
Ulrich said before visiting his Oklahoma investment property, he was a youth pastor at a church in Yucaipa, a small town in southern California. He said the biggest problem he helped solve was youths struggling with the breakup of their boyfriend or girlfriend — nothing of the magnitude of the types of crises that awaited him here.
Ulrich said it was several months after he had met and prayed with many of the transient occupants of the supposedly vacant apartment building that he and his wife decided to heed the Lord’s call and move to Oklahoma City. People from different congregations heard about the couple’s move of faith and helpers began arriving.
He estimates he’s lost about $200,000 in what he had initially hoped would be a lucrative endeavor. However, he said he’s gained so much more than money — new friends, a new city and a new purpose.
“It’s important that we are a light and as the light we’re to go to dark places,” he said. “This seems like this will be a place where Jesus would have hung out. He didn’t come for the righteous, He came for the broken, and there are lot of them down here.”
The Refuge is not ready for ministry efforts in the building, but churches have not let that stop them from using the site to offer a variety of services.
In November, LifeChurch.tv held a block party outside The Refuge, offering hot meals, tents, bedding, haircuts, shopping excursions and a worship experience to homeless people. In January, volunteers from New Covenant Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) converged on the building to clean and help with renovation.
Students from Oklahoma Christian University also have been involved in the restoration and two college students from the Dallas area showed up one day during spring break to clean and perform other rehab tasks. Ulrich estimates about 3,000 people have walked through the halls since he bought the building.
Looking out a window on the building’s east side, Ulrich pointed to street corners where he hopes to hold prayer gatherings early each month, when drug and other criminal activity seem to increase.
Much of the work of The Refuge is simple, he said. Church congregations must come outside the four walls of their church building where the need for ministry is strongest, instead of waiting for people to come to them.
“The Lord was wanting to do some rescuing,” Ulrich said.