The Church Under the Bridge
By Lee Ann Marcel
April 8, 2009
Crack addicts, prostitutes and criminals filter in under the bridge as the sun rises. College students begin folding chairs around a stage. Meanwhile groups of people fill the empty bowls of the homeless. This isn’t your typical Sunday morning church service.
A few men sporting scraggly beards lean against the huge concrete pillars as the roar of cars rush overhead. The gray-headed, stocky pastor jumps out of his beat-up truck, sporting a college T-shirt and shorts. He mingles with several of the college students and the homeless, giving them bear hugs or a hearty pat on the back. The pastor, Jimmy Dorrell, makes his way to the stage and begins to preach. Pigeons coo and bustle above, dropping an occasional “surprise” onto the heads below. While some pastors may preach about health, wealth and prosperity, Dorrell teaches on the idea of simple living.
Waco, a historic town in the heart of Texas, is filled with religious culture and poverty. Baylor University, the largest Baptist college in the world, is located right in the heart of the city, but immediately surrounding the college is immense poverty.
Waco is the fifth poorest city in Texas with twice the poverty rate. The average poverty rate for a city is 13 percent, but Waco has a rate of 27.6 percent. The city is historically full of poverty, low wages and ingrained racism that make it difficult to break out of the poverty cycle.
In the midst of these two contrasting worlds, stands a bridge where people come to worship. The Church Under the Bridge provides an unorthodox yet beautiful image of what the Church should be, where the unlovely come to be loved. It’s a place where social walls are demolished, left crumpled at the foot of the cross.
Church Under the Bridge began as Bible study in 1992. Dorrell had just started an interdenominational program called Mission Waco, a program that aided the poorest parts of the city. One morning Dorrell and his wife, Janet, treated a group of homeless men to breakfast. This soon developed into a Bible study where his wife played guitar and he presented a message.
What started as a group of homeless men that slept under the I-35 bridge soon developed into a church of 300. The church still meets under that same bridge.
“Today, we have this very diverse group of people, not just homeless people but lower income, and we also have middle income and even wealthy folks,” Dorrell says. “So it's very racially diverse, black white and brown, rich and poor.”
Trolls and a Bridge
But why does the Church brave the elements?
“There were a lot of folks who where unchurched who would never walk into the doors of a building but feel free to just stand on the edges,” Dorrell says. “As soon as you go into a building, you lose that. You begin to have walls that mean people have to come in and sort of be there and participate so it changes that.”
But the reason behind using the interstate bridge isn’t just for the members. Dorrell found that there is a visual impact on people who simply pass by and see the church service.
“We also just found out that this has an incredible impact on being the visible community. We think that the church is the visible community—not a building but the people.”
They call themselves “trolls.” Many members of Church Under the Bridge even sport a shirt proudly displaying the word.
Trolls are usually considered to live under bridges, Dorrell explained. The image seemed appropriate for the Church, not just because of their location.
“We are all trolls and we are all the sinners. So we got our warts and ugliness, and people are scared sometimes of the old troll under the bridge,” Dorrell says. “By society's standards, we are misfits. We don’t have buildings, we don’t have pretty people—we have these people who are somewhat rejected in culture but when you really get to know the trolls, with all the warts and the ugly side of their past experiences, there really is a genuineness and a lot to learn from them. So we are trolls, nobody gets excluded. You can even be a Pharisee, and rich and be a troll.”
Each Sunday a group of people come to serve a meal to the church attendees. Dorrell says they feed up to 125 people each week.
“We serve our meal early at 10:30 a.m. so that we don’t create the soup kitchen mindset that says, ‘You gotta listen to the sermon before you eat.’ We say, ‘You know if you wanna eat and leave, that’s fine. We’re gonna be here worshiping.’ So most everyone sticks around, but it’s the sense of, you can stay as far back and away from the sermon, or be in the center of it if you're not comfortable with,” Dorrell says.The service starts. The band is mutli-racial, not your typical white middle class Christians. A mentally handicapped man stands boldly as he sings joyfully on stage, turning back to the drummer every now and again giving him directions.
“There is this real interesting love relationship with people crossing social barriers socially, and it’s a pretty amazing atmosphere,” Dorrell says. “We try to incorporate the people who are a part of the city that might not be accepted anywhere else. So, we are going to have a mentally challenged guy helping out with music, who really can’t sing or really can’t play anything. But we let him play like he is playing a guitar.”
The church also provides special events such as their health fair on Sundays for their less fortunate members. Groups of professionals along with medical students from the nearby college will give people checkups.
The church has also tried to do away with a clergy and laity feel. They hope to encourage that everyone has equal spiritual gifts, from pastor to the college student.
“I’m just Jimmy, I don’t want to be known as reverend,” Dorrell explains. “I want everybody in the church to know that they have gifts no matter what they have done, or where they have been. So there is a real sense of empowerment.
Bursting the Bubble
At Baylor University, there is a saying that students live in a sheltered bubble nicknamed the “Baylor Bubble.” Some students are unaware of the world around them and live their day-to-day lives wrapped up in school and social circles.
“We have a lot of students who never leave campus or the nicer areas of the city, and they don’t even recognize that poverty is in the shadows of their own buildings,” Dorrell says.
But the same can be said about the Church. Many churches can be wrapped up within their own walls and can fail to see their neighbors.
“Mission Waco began to not only provide empowerment programs for the poor but also to say, 'Hey, Church, wake up! Worshiping is more than being in this quiet environment behind stained glass windows,'” Dorrell says. “That you got to address the social concerns of the community. The Church has got to press back the darkness and let the light penetrate in and make a difference for the poor.”
But a trap that the Church often falls into is the mistake of looking down on the poor. We often just throw money at the situation rather than seeing them as equals worthy of our time.
“One of the biggest challenges is that we want outsiders to understand that not only is this a ministry that includes the poor, we do not look down on the poor as sort of the victims. We treat each other as equals. Especially if middle class Christians who typically have a tendency to feel sorry for people that are poor and all these people considering, lets go fix them or help them.”
Many times the middle class can merely feel sorry for the poor and never move to the next step or simply don’t know where to start.
“Our values are very skewed as the middle class people,” Dorrell says. “Even though we are Christian, we have synchronized our values with more of the culture than our faith. So we know that most middle class people don’t understand poverty, they feel sorry for them, they care, but they don’t understand a lot of the issues.”
Dorrell suggested simply opening your eyes to the community around you and outside the safe walls of your church and your home
“I think the main thing is just to figure out a way that most people could feel enough comfort, they should feel a little bit of risk that’s a part of the whole deal, we move into a place of apathy and safety instead of the risk,” Dorrell says.
But for some of us, we aren’t quite ready to jump in headfirst. Dorrell suggested a safe, first step.
“I feel the most safe step is serving at the soup kitchen or working in the homeless shelter or helping with after school programs,” Dorrell says. “Through those, you begin to take the next steps. With each step you get more and more comfortable, and you realize all your presumptions were wrong.”
Once all our social barriers are gone, all our presumptions have been shed, we begin to realize the strange upside-down quality of God’s Kingdom. That He tends to use those who we least expect. That He might use someone other than the rich to spread the good news. Maybe heaven is a little like Church Under the Bridge, where there is no rich, no poor, just a bunch of redeemed trolls under a bridge gathering to worship God.