Church Under the Bridge celebrates 20th anniversary

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 David McLain

Twenty years is a long time to camp out under an overpass.

This Sunday, Church Under the Bridge will celebrate its 20th anniversary.

The worship service will start at 10:45 a.m., followed by a meal after the service. Larry James, president of City Square Dallas, will be the featured speaker.

Church Under the Bridge, which gathers under the Interstate 35 bridge over Fourth Street and Fifth Street every Sunday, originated from a conversation that Jimmy Dorrell had with a few men living under the bridge in 1992. Dorrell is the executive director of Mission Waco, a local poverty ministry, and pastor of Church Under the Bridge.

The men wanted to be a part of a Bible study. So Dorrell, his wife Janet and a few Mission Waco volunteers agreed to start a bible study as a part of Mission Waco under the I-35 bridge.

“They asked to come back next week, and instead of panhandling, there was a guy with a sign saying ‘Come to Bible study,’” Dorrell said. “There ended up being 70, 80 people, and people started calling it Church Under the Bridge.”

Twenty years later, Church Under the Bridge has grown to more than 300 people in regular attendance and countless weekly visitors, including an increasing number of Baylor students. Altus, Okla., senior Fallon Fausch sees Church Under the Bridge as a church that “picks up the biblical commands to be with the poor.”

“It’s completely different than any other church,” Fausch said. “As a visitor you really do feel challenged by the people and their stories. It’s a very humbling experience.”

Church Under the Bridge, which started unconventionally, also developed unconventionally.

Until 2006, the church considered itself a Covenantal Community run by what they called a Covenant Council.

Six years ago, the church changed its internal structure to a pastor-led community, naming Dorrell the pastor.

“Church renewal is my heart,” Dorrell said. “I really do believe in the church and I am worried for it.”

Dorrell said that many Christian churches have forgotten the mission of Jesus and the early church, namely service to the poor and the homeless.

As a response to that fear, Dorrell intentionally developed the purpose and vision of Church Under the Bridge into “life together” with poor and homeless Wacoans.

“Church Under the Bridge was sort of this fun, weird challenge about what do you do that’s not traditional,” Dorrell said.

“In the same craziness of it all, every third Sunday we have communion and it is reverent,” he said.

This combination of nontraditional worship and reverence attracts both the poor and the Baylor students that wander over to discover the crowd gathered just off campus. “When you go to Church Under the Bridge you can’t just stand there,” Fausch said.

“If you just stand there you are not going to get the experience. It really helps you step out of your comfort zone,” he said.

Dorrell and his wife chose to live in north Waco in 1978, where they would be surrounded by the people they were serving, a sign of their commitment to their mission.

“We are not a church for the poor; we are a church with the poor,” Dorrell said. “We believe that Christianity is incarnational, so we chose to live in this neighborhood. We moved in the mess, people became friends and Mission Waco grew out of that,” he said.