Story by Aaron Cobbs; Photos by Angela Tharpe
Interstate 35 is a monumental structure with massive pillars that rise off the ground. Underneath the highway lie stone pebbles that rumble and shake every time a car rushes on top. But on Sunday mornings, another rumble can be heard: the footsteps of a large gathering of homeless men and women who come to serve God. This is the organization known as Church Under the Bridge.
Lead pastor Jimmy Dorrell and his ministry founded Church Under the Bridge in 1992. He describes its formation as a natural process, something that came about when he, his wife and a Baylor student invited a group of homeless men that were living under I-35 to have dinner with them. These men took kindly to Dorrell’s invitation.
“Eventually, it got to be so big that they invited me for Bible study,” Dorrell said. “So I walked to them.”
More and more people started to show up to the fellowship under the bridge – some looking for food and others looking for faith. Dorrell and his members realized that they could meet both needs and decided to establish Church Under the Bridge as a continuing identity. Today, with 25 years of service, Church Under the Bridge has transformed the spiritual and physical lives of the Waco citizens and the homeless population it swore to help.
Like Jesus, who ministered to those who were not a part of the church, the members of Church Under the Bridge are granted a haven and the opportunity to seek out his Word. Before each service, physical needs are met in the form of a church wide food drive that serves breakfast or lunch. One staff member, Lydia Harden, enjoys providing for the members.
“Sometimes it’s just putting marshmallows in their hot chocolate when they’re cold,” Harden said. “It’s a much different church than the one I grew up in.”
Most of the Church Under the Bridge staff members used to be a part of other churches around the city, Harden said. However, they felt called to Church Under the Bridge to serve the community. In fact, some of the staff were once members themselves who sought to return the favor paid to them by the church, including Allen Bryant.
After enduring the death of his only daughter at a young age, Bryant soon became homeless. In his grief, he lost his faith. However, once he discovered the Church Under the Bridge and attended a few services, his faith began to grow and he began to attend regularly. Bryant, along with his wife Shelley Bryant, currently serves as the leader of the “Walking in Faith Group,” one of the 13 small groups within available to church members and guests.
“Right here brought me back,” Bryant said when asked about his time in the church. “Now I’ve been coming here for 10 years, married to my childhood sweetheart, and I now work as a monitor at a shelter that I once stayed in. That’s the power that God can have.”
The churches found within the New Testament had a profound effect on determining how Church Under the Bridge should function. These churches acted on their charity rooted faith: taking care of the sick, giving to the poor and providing for those who needed help. While these attributes were found in many churches in the New Testament, some say these principles are often missing in many modern churches, making the Church Under the Bridge a rarity in today’s age.
“I’ve seen people who look like our members be turned away at other churches,” Bryant said while motioning to the congregation sitting in folding chairs. “That’s not Christian in my opinion.”
Church Under the Bridge challenges what it means to be a Christian in today’s time. Because not all of their members are Christian, the church works to accommodate as much as it can. Don’t be surprised if you see members smoking off to the side or walking around the service. For these members, it’s a natural part of life. Church Under the Bridge members find their own reasons for faith.
Thomas Williams, one of the members of the church, described the church as “the only place where I can get this type of assistance.”
“I’ve been a believer all my life,” Williams said. “But you never know what you have to do to stay alive.”
While fellow members can relate to his experience, Baylor students who attend these services see this play out front and center. Marion, Ill., sophomore Anna Frerichs first attended Church Under the Bridge while taking part in the Poverty Simulation Program, a weekend program run by Dorrell’s charity Mission Waco that works to expose participants to the realities of being homeless and lost in a large city.
“I think a meaningful life comes from people,” Frerichs said. “It’s about filling each others’ needs and about God filling our needs.”
Filling the needs of others is essential for Church Under the Bridge. Current Mission Waco driver and former addict Derrick Thomas became connected to the church after joining a recovery project called the Manna House, an alcohol and drug treatment center for adult men guided by Christian principles and secular treatment. As a member of the Manna House, he was required to attend church every Sunday. Thomas has since been a member of Church Under the Bridge for seven years.
“I’ve become an employee for Mission Waco and I’ve been clean from drugs and alcohol for about seven years,” Thomas said. “[The church] doesn’t focus on how you’re dressed or what you have. It focuses on love and the care and concern for the next person. Whether they are on drugs or not on drugs, you still have to treat them the same way.”
From the homeless members to the prominent business leaders of the Waco community, Church Under the Bridge continues to serve and connect the diverse communities. While the church may have no physical permanence, underneath the rubble of the highway bridge, the stones cry out to Christ above in harmony.