WACO—About 25 years ago, Jimmy and Janet Dorrell were eating breakfast tacos at a Waco fast-food restaurant when they saw a homeless man who had been sleeping under the I-35 overpass near the Baylor University campus, between 4th and 5th streets.
Several years earlier, the Dorrells had moved into an impoverished Waco neighborhood and started an “incarnational ministry” among the poor, building relationships and meeting needs while earning his living as a grant writer. By 1992, with the help of a grant from Christian Missions Concerns, the Dorrells’ work developed into Mission Waco—an interdenominational ministry to the city’s poor and marginalized.
Learning from the poor and marginalized
Living and working among the poor, the Dorrells were more comfortable than most people approaching homeless men. So, they delivered breakfast to the man who had been sleeping under the overpass. They told him they wanted to learn more about his life and the lives of others who lived on the streets of Waco.
“We’ll be the students. You be the teacher,” Jimmy Dorrell told him.
After they visited a while that morning, the man agreed to meet for breakfast a week later. That second week, the man brought several friends.
“By the third week, breakfast cost me $250,” Dorrell said.
But the costly meal brought an invitation. The homeless men asked Dorrell to lead a Bible study for people on the streets.
Five homeless men attended the first Bible study Dorrell led under the noisy I-35 overpass, and they asked Dorrell to do it again the next week. Before long, other people from nearby low-income neighborhoods joined the homeless for the Bible study.
Soon, some Baylor students joined the Sunday gathering, and several Baylor Law School students brought enough peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for everyone. In time, some middle-class Waco residents who felt out of place in conventional churches found a spiritual home beneath the overpass.
For about 18 months, the assembly functioned as a Bible study of Mission Waco. But when Dorrell realized the ragtag gathering had grown into a congregation, it constituted as Church Under the Bridge. The church marks its 25th anniversary Sept. 17.
A passion for seeing the church renewed
Although Dorrell is both executive director of Mission Waco and pastor of Church Under the Bridge, and the congregation includes people who benefit from the community ministry, the two entities are organizationally distinct and separate.
“Mission Waco is my love. The renewal of the church is my passion,” said Dorrell, who earned a doctor of ministry degree from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, concentrating his studies on the church in renewal for mission.
“I grew up in First Baptist Church of Conroe, where I earned a seven-year Sunday school perfect attendance pin,” he said. “I was a Pharisee of Pharisees.”
Dorrell earned his undergraduate degree at Baylor University and a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He served as a youth minister at Highland Baptist Church in Waco.
Dorrell loves churches, but he felt restless and dissatisfied with much that he found in them—an obsession with buildings and budgets, a rigid distinction between clergy and laity, and lack of connection with poor and marginalized people, the kind of people to whom Jesus ministered.
‘Put up or shut up time’
So, starting a church without walls under a noisy overpass that attracted people who didn’t fit anywhere else seemed like clear calling from God.
“It was put up or shut up time,” Dorrell said. “We didn’t know what we were doing. There were no rules.”
Although Dorrell is Baptist, Church Under the Bridge carries no denominational identity.
“It didn’t make sense to be denominational under a bridge,” he said. “We emphasize the centrality of Christ.”
Dorrell accepts no salary for his work as pastor of Church Under the Bridge. Because the church has no expenses for building maintenance or utilities, it is able to give about half of the money received in offerings to local and global missions.
Volunteers serve a meal beneath the overpass about a half-hour before worship services begin each Sunday. On a typical Sunday, about 300 stay for worship, but nobody is required to do so.
As part of its commitment to racial and ethnic diversity, Church Under the Bridge wants to develop a multi-racial worship and pastoral team. Pastor Charles Benson, who is African-American, handles most of the weekday pastoral ministry and also preaches on a regular basis.
Between the two of them, co-pastors Dorrell and Benson have conducted about three dozen wedding ceremonies under the I-35 overpass, and they immerse new Christians in a river baptism service each Easter.
Engaging everyone in worship
Church Under the Bridge seeks to engage people in worship and dialogue, including a fair number of individuals with mental illness who attend regularly.
“The nonverbal stuff is as important as anything I say in a sermon,” Dorrell said.
One man who struggles with mental illness wanted to be part of the church’s worship team. After several failed attempts at finding a place for him, the worship leaders decided to let him play the electric guitar each week.
“We just never plug it in,” Dorrell explained.
An individual on the autistic spectrum—a savant in terms of memorizing sports trivia and statistics—is invited each Sunday morning to share a sports update or an arcane fact about some team.
After the brief sports report, he sings, “Jesus Loves Me.” And first-time visitors inevitably wipe away tears when they hear it.
“Here’s a man who has never fit in, who has been kicked around and made fun of,” Dorrell said. “But at Church Under the Bridge, he is treated with dignity and respected.”
Another church member, David, was on crack the night he showed up at the Dorrells’ house, saying he was going to kill himself. Dorrell assured David that wasn’t going to happen, and he called the police.
“He saved my life,” said David, who returned to Waco after incarceration. He began attending Church Under the Bridge, and eventually went to work for Mission Waco, helping with its nonprofit Jubilee Food Market and its Urban Reap aquaponics project.
“If you don’t want to get on my bad side, there’s three things you better not do,” David said. “Don’t talk bad about Church Under the Bridge. Don’t talk bad about Jimmy Dorrell. And don’t talk bad about my mama.”
Building a sense of community
During the week, a dozen small groups meet for Bible study and mutual support. Several are focused on specialized needs, such as ex-offenders, women who have been in abusive relationships, people who are in recovery from substance abuse and individuals with mental health disorders.
Members of the church also enjoy spending time together informally, including at special events such as a cultural food and dance night.
“Church Under the Bridge knows how to play,” Dorrell said. “A lot of folks who grew up hard never played as children. We have fun.”
Dorrell knows about at least seven other congregations in Texas that call themselves “Church Under the Bridge.” Some grew out of relationships with the Waco congregation; others simply drew inspiration from it.
Next year, the Church Under the Bridge will have to relocate for a few months, while the Texas Department of Transportation works on renovating the I-35 overpass. Wherever the church meets, one thing is certain—it will be in a place where people marginalized by mainstream society feel comfortable.
“So many of the people on the fringes would never go to worship in a building,” Dorrell said.
This is part of an ongoing series about how Christians respond to hunger and poverty. Substantive coverage of significant issues facing Texas Baptists is made possible in part by a grant from the Prichard Family Foundation.