By Rob Bradfield
Plenty of people pray daily, but for Waco resident Virgil Bell, praying is a full-time job.
Many have seen him praying on the foot bridge over I-35, clothed in long robes and holding two staves.
Occasionally, motorists passing below give him a friendly honk as he stands with his arms spread wide. He’s out there three to five days a week, in any weather, praying for the safety and well-being of everyone he sees.
“My job is to reach out to everybody. I don’t care what they did or who they did it to,” Bell said.
Bell attended Waco’s Paul Quinn College in 1975, where he met his wife, Kay. The couple separated in 1986, and Bell began a 17-year period of homelessness.
Bell said his time on the streets helped him better understand the plight of impoverished and displaced people around the world, and it was during this time he began his calling as an “apostle to the streets.”
After reuniting with his wife in 1995 and moving back to Waco three years ago, Bell began a lifestyle of public prayer. As reported in a 2010 Waco Tribune-Herald article, Bell initially met with resistance from various Waco police officers. The article states he was repeatedly detained and even committed to a psychiatric hospital for a short time. Bell readily tells the same story.
Like his time on the streets, he said he considers his experiences with the police and in the mental hospital a part of God’s calling for his ministry.“You have to get rejected first before you can get accepted,” Bell said.
Since then, Bell said his relationship with the city of Waco has completely reversed. He can now be seen regularly, praying over the various law enforcement and government agencies in town, from the Waco police to the courthouse. Many in the law enforcement community now welcome Bell’s prayers.
“He’s very cordial and will offer to pray for us and other police officers, and we’re willing to take all the prayers we can get,” Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, of the Waco Police Department, said. Among the Baylor community, Bell’s unconventional faith has spawned mixed reactions.
Many people voice their support for Bell on the highway and on Internet forums like Baylorfans.com. To others, Bell’s appearance — fully robed with a headwrap and staff — can be slightly shocking.
“If you told me he was praying, I’d believe you, but it just seems bizarre,” Michael Hannon, a Baylor graduate student, said. Bell maintains that his dress is part of his calling to be a modern apostle, and he attaches meaning to each aspect. To Bell, the colored robes symbolize his commitment to people of all different colors, and each staff represents the relationship between God and the people.
Bell said his choice in clothing has caused people to identify him with Moses, or assume he practices Islam. He said he realizes that this can be off-putting to some people, but like most hardships in his life, he has taken it in stride.
Bell doesn’t profess any particular branch of faith, but he and his wife have made a commitment to visit every church in town. Bell makes a point not to condemn or profess any denomination or religion, but focuses on the commonalities they all share.
Bell chooses to let his love define his faith. He said he is determined to share that love with everyone he meets.“It’s time for freedom in the love of God, freedom to love every nationality, kindred and tongue,” he said.