Changing lives, crossing barriers

A member of the Waco homeless community holds his hands together above his head as the Church Under The Bridge Band performs during the 19th anniversary on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011, under the 5th Avenue/I-35 bridge. Before the service, members of the church participated in the annual Walk for the Homeless, a 1.4 mile event beginning at the Meyers Center. Matt Hellman | Lariat Photo Editor

By Grace Gaddy

For many, the underpass where Interstate Highway 35 crosses over South 5th Street in Waco marks just another section of Texas asphalt. But to others, it represents a place of hope, healing and changed lives.

Church Under the Bridge, known to draw many of its members from Waco’s homeless community, has met each week in the same location for nearly two decades.

While most people enjoy the luxuries of an air-conditioned building with padded pews, the outdoor church, which celebrated 19 years on Sunday, boasts a strikingly different structure.

Jimmy Dorrell, senior pastor and executive director for Mission Waco, said it’s all about relationships. He described the marvel of people crossing racial, economic and denominational barriers “to learn to care for each other.”
“That’s the strength of the church,” he said. “It’s more about our diversity.”

Charles Benson, associate pastor for Church Under the Bridge, echoed Dorrell’s thoughts, saying he would “never go back” to a traditional church “because of the relationships, the openness, the diversity.”

The common misconception is that Church Under the Bridge is one “for the poor,” Dorrell said. But it is so much more than that.

“It’s not us who have got it together helping people who don’t have it together,” Dorrell said. “I need the poor as much as they need me. It’s this sense of collaboration that says we need each other.”

“When I look out on Sunday mornings, I see this incredible mix of diversity black, white and brown folks, Baylor kids sitting next to homeless people,” he said. “It is a heaven thing for me. This is what the kingdom of God is about.”

Dorrell remembered the day it all began: Sept. 20, 1992.

“We were at Taco Cabana and realized that the homeless guys were literally sleeping under the bridge where we are now because they didn’t have a shelter at that point,” Dorrell said.

Dorrell bought the men breakfast and “took the role of the student,” he said.

“We don’t know much about homelessness,” he told them. “Teach us.”

That simple gesture wrapped up with an invitation to do the same thing a week later, and more men returned.
As relationships blossomed, someone suggested they hold a Bible study where they lived under the bridge.

“We went over, and five folks showed up,” Dorrell said.

Baylor students across the street jumped in to help, and the church has been going ever since, he said.

“Today the church runs about 300 on an average Sunday, a number comprising about 40 percent poor and 60 percent middle class,” Dorrell said.

Small groups and Bible studies assemble throughout the week, including a recovery group for those still struggling with addictions, which meets an hour before the service.

Volunteers serve a hot meal around 10:30, and worship kicks off around 10:45.

“We’ll feed you, and if you don’t want to stay, that’s fine, take off,” Dorrell said.

But he watches as participants come closer each time, as was the case with Julie Breeding.
“When I first started coming out, I’d sit on the outside,” she said.

She was addicted to crack cocaine at the time and was hesitant to talk to anyone. But as time went forward, she made friends.

“Nobody said anything about me being an addict,” she said. “I’d hear the testimony of what this church had done and how you weren’t ever judged here. You weren’t judged for your color or your addiction or your job. You were just you, and God was here with you. And God was going to help you if you let Him.”

Breeding became a follower of Christ and has not looked back.

“That was three years ago on July 5, and I’ve been clean ever since,” she said. “And I am a firm believer if it was not for this church underneath this bridge, this pastor and the people who come here, I would either be dead or in jail, because those are the only options.”