U Magazine May 2006
Church Under the Bridge Builds a Bridge to Those In Need
About fifty of us gather under the northbound Interstate 35 bridge. A freezing mist fills the air on this chilly morning, making the sky as gray as the concrete above our heads. The recovery group that had been huddled in a circle picks up their folding chairs and joins us. The food crew dishes up the last steaming bowls of red beans, sausage, and cornbread.
The cold has thinned the ranks of the 300 or so who usually attend Church Under the Bridge. Today it was just the "lean and mean" hard-core regulars, some Baylor students, a group of teenagers from Amarillo, and a few first-time stragglers who are asking ourselves why we picked this day to visit a church that meets outside. We stand in a sanctuary carpeted with gravel and cigarette butts, while above us the arched concrete roof vibrates with the Sunday morning roar of 18-wheelers.
A well-known writer on poverty has said that the poor in America are indistinguishable from everyone else because they don't wear rags. This morning that statement is not exactly accurate. I find myself standing rather uncomfortably on the edge of a deep social chasm. It can be difficult to find the words to say to someone whose lifestyle of addiction and mental illness is communicated by the clothes they wear.
"Everybody find a chair." the pastor booms. "If hell is very hot, then we must be in heaven, today!" As we shuffle toward the battered folding chairs, the worship band continues tuning up. Suddenly they kick into a loud, fast version of "Power in the Blood." The song strikes us with an almost palpable force, like a blast of warm air on frozen faces. The truth of this old hymn has never seemed more pertinent than it is this morning.
Would you be free from your burden of sin?
There's power in the blood, power in the blood.
Would you o'er evil a victory win?
There's wonderful power in the blood.
I have not come to this place expecting to encounter the Holy Spirit, and the incongruity of his presence is as jarring as it is welcome. Hope seems to sweep through the crowd. With the twang of electric guitars, the band moves on to the ancient promise spoken through the prophet Isaiah.
I will change your name.
You shall no longer be calledwounded, outcast, lonely, or afraid.
I will change your name.
Your new name shall be
Confidence, Joyful, Overcoming One.
A worn, middle-aged man standing next to me in the bitter cold, mutters, "That's a good song."
"Yeah. Are you from here? Do you have family in Waco?" I ask.
"Yeah, but..." he pauses. "I was strung out on drugs and alcohol for a long time..."
"They didn't think you could change?"
"Yeah, but God can change anybody."
The band transitions to an up-tempo Spanish song. The Mexican family in the row ahead of me smiles and glances shyly at the faces of those around them, most of whom don't attempt the words. They just move to the beat.
"Y'all sit down and let's sing People of God."
"Pico de gallo?" yells a comedian in the crowd.
"Same thing," shrugs the worship leader.
We're the people of God, called by his name.
Called from the dark and delivered from shame.
One holy race, saints everyone because of the blood of Christ Jesus the Son.
The ragged guy at the end of the row puffs nervously at his cigarette. The message of these songs is, after all, both healing and unsettling. They offer a powerful vision of hope that is so unlike life on the streets. It's the paradox of the gospel—strength perfected in weakness, honor bestowed on the humble, wisdom given to fools. Do you believe it?
The crowd sits down as Pastor Jimmy Dorrell introduces a guest speaker. She's a white-haired poverty activist from Chicago who's been leading a workshop in Waco. She exhorts us to pray, to be politically active, to peacefully confront violence and poverty, and to let God give us eyes to see possibilities for helping people. Good advice for the caregivers, but it doesn't seem to be connecting with this crowd?those who desperately need care. They sip coffee and seem to be lost in their own thoughts. The lady has a plane to catch and concludes her message to polite applause. Dorrell takes the mike and assures us that what she's doing in West Chicago is much better than what's happening here, but I doubt it.
It's communion Sunday, and Dorrell reads a scripture with his toboggan cap pulled down to his eyebrows. He urges us to examine our hearts before taking this communion. Do we have the courage to admit to God that we have anger, dirty mouths, and other sins that need forgiveness? He prays and we form a ragged line to receive the Lord's Supper. I bend down to snag a cup of grape juice, while a strangely dressed lady breaks off a small piece of bread from the loaf that she clutches in both hands. Beneath a straw hat decorated with colorful bits of rags, her face radiates good will as she gives me the bread. As we sit with heads bowed before drinking the juice, I notice that the girl next to me has stuck a huge wad of green chewing gum to the rim of her communion cup?just too good to throw away. It's an appropriate metaphor: God has come to us, but we have this treasure in jars of clay?another day in the life of the church.
We are dismissed and the pastor moves through the crowd greeting people with jovial good humor. Jimmy and Janet Dorrell have an obvious affection for their congregation, but they are straight up with the message?sin, repentance, salvation, and discipleship. The people aren't victims but men and women with potential.
There is power in the blood.
A Few Facts
While working for the Campfire organization back in the 1980s, Jimmy Dorrell began offering weekend poverty simulations?a couple days and nights on the streets without housing or money?in an effort to instill compassion for those who are the least and last of Waco's citizens. A timely grant from Christian Mission Concerns allowed Dorrell to move into this effort full-time. By 1991, this had grown into Cross Cultural Experiences/Mission Waco as Dorrell and his wife sought a way to grapple with the problem of poverty in an affluent society.
It was in the following year that Dorrell struck up a conversation with some homeless men who were sleeping under the 5th Street bridge near Baylor. He began to teach them the Bible as a means of bringing healing and transformation. Over time, a weekly Bible study turned into a full-service church?one with a broad foundation of feeding hungry bellies and thirsty souls, sponsoring missions, recovery groups, and promoting racial reconciliation. Today, Church Under the Bridge is probably the most well-rounded church in the city. Their stated goals are to renew the life of the church in America while having a few laughs along the way. You don't want to miss their annual touch football game, "The Toilet Bowl." As Dorrell likes to say, they are "organic, not organizational."
While they are now two separate entities, both the church and the mission are thriving. As many as 500 volunteers a year serve at Mission Waco, which offers after-school programs for students, job training, men's and women's residential recovery programs, free medical clinics and social services at the Meyer Center (the old Central Presbyterian Church), and?still a big favorite?a weekend of simulated poverty.
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