Two and a half years ago, Tim Ulrich wouldn’t have struck you as a candidate to clean up a crack-infested neighborhood overrun by gangs, prostitutes, and drug addicts. He enjoyed a comfortable life, serving as an assistant pastor in California and working primarily with suburban youth. But beneath the surface, God was at work, getting ready to break Tim’s heart in such an incredible way that he would be ruined forever—ruined for the radical truth of the Gospel.
Deal Gone Bad
Aside from Tim’s rather nondescript California ministry job, he put his business degree to work on the side, buying houses, fixing them up and reselling them for a handsome profit. In fact, he felt like business was the direction God had for his life until he heard the call to go into the ministry seven years prior. Yet it was a business deal gone bad that sparked the most life-changing week in Tim’s life.
In the midst of wheeling and dealing, a friend recommended Tim buy an investment property in downtown Oklahoma City, site unseen. He convinced Tim that there was a substantial profit to be made from flipping this apartment complex. That was when the trouble began.
The owners of the apartment units and the property manager managed to present the apartment as a thriving area, one that showed great promise. But looks were more than deceiving. In reality, the apartment complex was home to some of the most down-and-out people in the city, not to mention a base for drug lords and every other imaginable kind of evil enterprise.
It wasn’t long before Tim realized he was caught up in the middle of a con game and stuck with a building that was losing him anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a month for a period of time.
“I was just dying inside,” Tim tells The Brink. “All I could say is ‘Jesus’, and I could say that a hundred times a minute. I was crying myself to sleep at night. But I remember the week before I finally went to Oklahoma City to try and sell the building and get rid of it once and for all that I got on my face before God. I said, ‘I’ll do whatever You want, however You want, whenever You want. I’m surrendered. Whatever that means.’ Then the first thing He called me to do was give $500 to somebody—and I had lost significant amounts of money. But I did it, yet I was like, ‘Are you sure Lord?’ Then the same day that same lady I sent money to ended up sending us $400. I was wondering if I had missed His voice. Then the Lord started to show me what obedience looked like. That’s when the Lord really started messing my life up. ”
Acts Come Alive
Tim’s plan to rid himself of this burdensome building was to fly to Oklahoma City, fix up the building and sell it. At this point, he was beyond caring about making a profit—he was more concerned with plugging the gaping cash leak. So Tim began fasting prior to his trip.
“I was trying to pull a wild card with my fasting, like, ‘Lord, help me. Take this problem off my hands. Send a tornado through this building or burn it down with fire. Just take it away from me’,” Tim said. “I thought I was off and I had totally messed up God’s will for my life.
Still unaware of the real activity taking place within his building, Tim was horrified to discover the truth once he arrived. “Drugs, gangs, prostitution—it was a buffet table of evil,” Tim said. “If evil could walk through the streets, it was walking down the ones near this building and getting whatever it wanted. Yet in spite of my fear, God began giving me an insane amount of boldness once we arrived.”
What Tim thought was going to be a week of redeeming a rundown building turned into a different kind of redemptive mission—one that involved broken people who were in desperate need of God’s love, grace and truth.
Two days into his extreme makeover project, Tim was perched on a ladder inside the building, painting when a 6-foot-4, 250-pound man walked near him. Trying to be polite, Tim asked him how he was doing.
“He just looked up at me and said, ‘I’m tired,'” Tim recalls. “And as cheesy as it sounds, I just said, ‘I know the one who brings rest.’ Then within a few minutes, he starts weeping and repenting. Then the Lord showed me some things about this guy’s life that I shared with him, and he was like, ‘What is going on? I heard about you.’
“There was just this release and repentance. These were small indicators that God was up to something.”
One afternoon, Tim and his friend ventured into a dark room near the roof’s building and watched about 30 gang members bolt out the back door when they walked in. “We joked about how darkness would flee when exposed to the light,” Tim said. “But it really was a visual picture of what was happening. God was at work in a big way.”
Then God began to speak to Tim in a way that forever reshaped his journey.
“When I woke up one night after reading Zechariah 7, God asked me, ‘Are you fasting for me or for you?’ I was hoping that fasting was the wild card of God to deliver me, so it was clear I was fasting for me and not for Him,” Tim said. “He began to show me that it wasn’t about me—it was about him. He said he would rather have me obey than sacrifice. At that point, when I heard Him say, ‘Obedience,’ I knew I was supposed to move out here and become a part of this. ”
By week’s end, Tim knew that this wasn’t a one-week fixer-upper in Oklahoma City, but the beginning of a much longer process of redeeming a building and neighborhood for Christ. “That week I had a hundred divine appointments and watched the word of God become more real than I had ever seen in my life. I think God still wants the book of Acts to be written today.”
When Tim returned home, he walked into his church office and resigned, not knowing the full plan but knowing it involved him doing ministry out of this building, what eventually became known as The Refuge.
“Many people thought I was crazy,” Tim says with a pause, before adding, “I thought I was crazy! And even a month after I moved out here, I asked my wife if she thought I was crazy. I didn’t have the full vision for what I was to be doing, but I knew the Lord was teaching me to trust Him. The vision would come later. I wanted vision because I wanted to know where I was headed.”
Despite shutting down the criminal activity inside the building, Tim was still wondering just what his purpose was after six months.
“Nothing was really happening, and I was scared all the time,” Tim said. “Whenever I would get within a couple of miles of the building, this heavy oppression would come over me. I would be scraping these nasty crack-infested floors and look out at like the city and tell the Lord that I was in the wrong building. I was supposed to be in one of those skyscrapers doing business. It didn’t make one bit of sense.”
But things quickly began to change. Tim befriended two generals—Homicide and Tango—from a local gang and began meeting and praying with them regularly. “These guys started going throughout the building and asking if they could repent for their sins in each of the rooms where they sinned,” Tim said.
One day later, a church shows up and says they heard about what I was doing and wanted to help fix up the building. Before too long, Tim was partnering with other local ministries and throwing a block party. Then more churches began hearing about what happening The Refuge and wanted to help.
Now, The Refuge is a growing ministry that is trying to model the love of Christ to a group of people who are downtrodden and often marginalized by society.
“A lot of what we’re doing on a daily basis is trying to be an example of selfless people serving the selfish,” Tim said. “The selfishness that they’re in is their idol is themselves. They are the temples lying in waste. The reason why is they are full of idols—they’re full of themselves. They’re living in their image, rather than the image of God. What we’re trying to do as believers to do is be the light and expose darkness just as Christ came to serve.
“We’re trying to pursue what it looks like to love God and love our neighbors. Our neighbors are crack dealers, business owners, prostitutes, gang members. And we’ve decided to focus on giving them spiritual food. We’re trying to transform that area by picking up trash, mowing lawns without people knowing it. It’s Isaiah 58. We’re modeling to the homeless people what it means to be creative producers and workers who use their hands to be fruitful and multiply. We think that’s the ticket to transforming and engaging them rather than enabling them.
“We think if we go and make disciples, we’ll advance the kingdom of God. It starts on our street. And when we get our street, we’re going after our neighborhood. When we get our neighborhood, we’ll go after our city and then our state.”
Not a bad start for a guy who just thought he was going to fix up a building.