WICHITA, Kan. — On a recent Thursday, a group of medical students huddled around a makeshift table in a tucked-away room in downtown Wichita.
The room, which had played host to Sunday school sessions years ago, has purple carpet with little cartoon sketches dotting the perimeter.
Its cubbies are full of medical supplies — and instead of Bible study, a much different kind of studying happens here now.
Student doctors with the KU School of Medicine’s Wichita campus see homeless patients every Thursday night at this clinic, housed within the former Central Christian Church building at Central and Market.
The church, which has been in the process of restoration for the past few years, is trying to be a “hub” for homeless services in the downtown area, its owner said.
From abandoned to useable
The building had its heyday decades ago.
In 1948, the building was dedicated as the home of Central Christian Church.
At the time, Central Christian was one of the largest churches in town — filling the Gothic cathedral-style building to the brim.
The church grew so big that in 1980, it moved to a newly constructed space at the corner of 29th and Rock, leaving a small spinoff congregation to stay at the downtown building.
First Christian, the spinoff congregation, dissolved and put the church on the market in 2005.
In 2006, Robert Mitelhaus bought the building.
Mitelhaus, who converted to Christianity at Central Christian Church in 1971, now lives in California. He works in commercial real estate and franchising.
“I was back in town visiting my mother, and I drove by there and saw a big for-sale sign out there,” he said. “I thought I might just give a call — I’m so used to California prices that I’d be interested to know what it was selling for.
“It sold for less than my house did.”
Mitelhaus bought the building for $775,000, but fell ill shortly after purchasing it.
In the following years, it became a haven for the homeless, who broke out its windows to take up residence inside the abandoned building. Inside, they “just destroyed the place,” Mitelhaus said, taking the pipes out of the organ, taking out all copper wiring, damaging the bathrooms and leaving a water leak in the basement to grow black mold.
Many have wanted to purchase the building to raze it and construct office buildings, apartments, or even a Starbucks, but Mitelhaus refused, wanting to see the building become a church again.
“My heart is for those who have nothing and who are desperate, not for those who have everything they could ever want and then some,” he said. “I just want to keep it as a place of ministry, where the gospel will be preached and continue reaching out to the homeless.”
He entered into a lease agreement with well-known Wichita pastor Joe Wright a couple years ago, though that partnership fizzled out in April 2017.
After that, Mitelhaus realized the church might be best used by a bunch of different groups and ministries — and since then, he has signed leases for multiple groups to use the space, including Church on the Street, The Source Wichita, and Jason Febres’ Rent the Chef business.
It still lacks proper heating and air-conditioning in some parts of the building, though the various groups that rent are contributing to renovation efforts.
Mitelhaus said he wants to renovate the third floor to be used as a shelter for homeless women with children, to help them get back on their feet. He said he plans to come to Wichita in January to discuss it with city officials.
Eventually, the ministries that lease the church say, they’d be interested in purchasing the property.
“I may not be around that much longer — you never know,” said Mitelhaus, 62. “I’d like to pass the property on to people I know are going to keep it as a church and those who have a mind to help the homeless.”
A homeless health clinic
One of the primary tenants now is the JayDoc Community Clinic, the KU-sponsored health clinic that treats patients on Thursday nights.
JayDoc is run in collaboration with the Guadalupe Clinic, an outreach effort by the Catholic Diocese of Wichita that provides healthcare to the uninsured and to those that can’t otherwise afford it.
Medical students from KU Med’s Wichita campus see patients (with supervising physicians) at the Guadalupe Clinic at 940 S. St. Francis on Saturday mornings.
But those Saturday-morning sessions often fill up fast, said David Gear, executive director of the Guadalupe Clinic.
Years ago, JayDoc expanded its operations to include a Thursday-night clinic session serving primarily homeless patients.
Since then, the Thursday-night clinic has been at Inter-Faith Ministries, the now-demolished Rycon Building downtown, and now the church at 445 N. Market.
It’s not required for KU Med students to work at the clinic — for most, it’s entirely optional.
“The benefit, I think, evolves as you grow as a medical student,” said Ken Schmanke, junior executive director on JayDoc’s board. “This was my retreat away from the classroom and the textbooks.”
There are three “exam rooms” at the church — all repurposed classrooms that are “very rudimentary” by medical standards, Gear said.
About six to seven patients come in every Thursday night, according to clinic officials.
Schmanke said volunteering at the JayDoc clinic helps him grow as a doctor.
“You really do get diversity of patient population in here — I work with people every day that I normally probably would never interact with,” he said. “There’s unique challenges to that — the biggest one being financial challenges. … You have to think outside the box and be creative.”
A ‘one-stop’ shop
Jason Villanueva, leader of The Source Wichita, said he envisions the church building as “a spiritual hub” of sorts.
His church rents out the chapel space, while Church on the Street — a homeless outreach ministry — rents kitchen and basement space.
Church on the Street regularly feeds between 50 and 200 of Wichita’s homeless at a time through its food pantry, and provides clothing to people in need.
It uses the church building for Bible studies, training and other such uses — as most of its ministry happens in parking lots and other public places.
Shawn Gordon, project manager for Church on the Street, said everyone in the church building is collaborating to create a “one-stop shop, almost,” for people in need.
“I bring in someone from off the streets, we have a hospital that can take care of small needs, and we have (The Source), where they can find a church home,” Gordon said.
He said they also try to connect the homeless to Wichita’s existing network of resources — “so we don’t have to keep re-creating this wheel.”
“There’s a synergy here that you can just tap into,” he said. “We’re all here on common ground, and that’s work, help and assist this community.”