Church Under the Bridge

By Susan Finck-Lockhart
Turn my passion for this world into passion for You. Gentle longing for the things of your heart. Turn my passions in this world into passion for You. Sweet devotion for the things of Your heart. Teach me to turn it loose; the things of the world - - unfold this mystery of your love for me. Turn my passion for this world; into passion for You. Gentle longing for the things of your heart.” --- Janet Dorrell, one of the founders of Church Under the Bridge, Waco, Texas
At 9 a.m. on Sunday morning the concrete space underneath the I-35 bridges over 4th and 5th street is empty. By 10:30 a.m., a mix of cars, trucks and vans have jumped the curb and are parked in a random pattern around several hundred well- worn folding chairs arranged in rows. Behind a large U-Haul style trailer emblazoned with “Mission Waco,” several folks are setting up microphones and music stands on a flatbed trailer, while fifty or so others dine on pancakes, sausage and fruit.
The congregation gathers.
Welcome to Church Under the Bridge or “CUB” in Waco, Texas - a church that lends new meaning to terms like ‘seeker sensitive’ and ‘come as you are.’ A large contingent of Baylor University students joins with homeless folks, recovering addicts, and a cadre of young couples. Several families and a few bikers -- one with an enormous wooden cross that he pulls behind his Harley -- complete the picture. One young African-American man in his uniform from the McLennan County Correctional Facility takes a seat next to a 60- something white man with wire-rimmed glasses, clad in a polo shirt and ballcap. The attire spans the gamut from shorts, T-shirts and torn jeans to a few skirts and even a sprinkling of starched button downs.
The worship team climbs up on the flatbed and begins to play a mix of 70s Jesus songs, traditional hymns, and contemporary praise songs. Also spread throughout the songbook are original songs composed by Janet Dorrell, who founded CUB with her husband Jimmy nine years ago and leads the singing with a hint of country western flair.
The chief ‘usher,’ not a centimeter under 6’6” and clad in a Church Under the Bridge t- shirt and old jeans, smiles at us through his chest-length salt and pepper beard as he hands us a bulletin. His shirt reads: “, white, and brown, rich and poor, educated in the street and educated in the university… all worshipping the same loving God who calls us to himself.” Several other worshippers sport a second style of t-shirt, which reads: “These are my church clothes.”
It smells of the street. Exhaust mingles with after shave, cologne and the “natural fragrance” of those whose last baths are a distant memory. Cigarette smoke wafts through the air: My daughter is horrified, “Mom, there is someone smoking-- during church!!”
“We’re just ordinary folks under an ordinary bridge all made holy by Your Presence,” Pastor Jimmy Dorrell prays. He evokes the image of the Great Banquet from Luke’s Gospel as he invites us to worship. As he prays, we hear the grinding of eighteen- wheelers shifting gears and the cars whizzing by overhead. Folks hang around on the periphery, some standing, some whispering to each other; some finishing up their food from the meal that is served each Sunday prior to worship. No silver offering plates here. Ushers pass around a coffee can covered with contac paper.
When it’s time for Sunday School, children pop up from among the crowd and gather by a woman holding a bright yellow rope. They line up, holding the rope, and cross the frontage road, through the Mobil station parking lot and disappear into the Clarion Hotel. (The Clarion donates a room for their use each Sunday.)
The message from the pulpit at CUB “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted” in a holistic, balanced way. The forgiveness of the cross and the transforming power of God in Christ are front and center. Bulletins feature sermon notes on the back with summaries of key points. One Sunday, Dorrell preached a hard-hitting message from James about the tongue. Several youth groups were there who had been working at various outreach ministries associated with the church. Dorrell hit on sins from “buying too many shoes at the mall” to “doing too much booze or slipping back into drugs…” Another Sunday, the worship team equipment was removed from the flatbed, and Dorrell preached on Samson “WWF Style”. Clad in a green wig with flowing hair to his waist, and a sweatshirt stuffed to look like bulging muscles, Dorrell wrestled several large men from the church playing the part of “Philistines” as the congregation catcalled and roared with laughter. “Delilah” appeared in a later scene - a church member clad in tight leather pants and a cleavage-revealing top. In between ‘scenes’ Dorrell’s message was driven home: “Moral impurity, deceit and rebellion affect one’s character.” And “an immature faith built on emotions rarely leads to strong character that honors God.”
CUB was spawned out of Mission Waco, a Christian- based non-profit organization that provides more than 20 programs to empower the poor and mobilize middle-class Christians. Dorrell serves as Director for Mission Waco, and many of those involved in CUB work for Mission Waco; the two have recently become organically separate.
Jimmy and Janet Dorrell and a couple of others began the church as an outreach Bible Study for the homeless men who slept under the I-35 and south 5th street bridge across from Baylor University. The church celebrated its ninth birthday during a recent Sunday morning service. “Ushers” passed out small vials of bubbles, and as the worship team played, a “bubble offering” drifted up to bless the traffic overhead. Couples have been married and babies dedicated under the bridge.
Lives have been changed here also. Dorrell proudly tells the story of one woman whose prostitute sister died a violent death. The woman herself was addicted to drugs and living with a man. Through loving Christian relationships, she eventually surrendered her life to Christ, but beating the drugs took some time. Finally, she broke free from drugs and married the man she was living with. She and her husband continued to be discipled and grow in their walk with the Lord. They are now small group leaders with CUB.
CUB operates according to nine “Core Values,” including being a church based on the revealed truth of God made manifest through the Scripture, illumined by the Holy Spirit and confirmed by the Body of Christ.
Other core values include:
2.) being church to the unchurched
3.) ministering to the poor and marginalized
4.) keeping Biblical justice as an overriding theme
5.) celebrating multiculturalism as a foundational pillar
6) de-emphasizing attractive or ‘holy’ buildings
7) emphasizing discipleship through small groups
8) being an interdenominational congregation
9) affirming the call to ‘life together’
Twelve small groups meeting throughout the city, usually in homes, and small group leaders meet regularly for training and accountability. One Sunday during announcement time, Dorrell announced the formation of a new Christian- based recovery group for anyone struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. “We have some flyers on this; if you want one, raise your hand,” he invited. Immediately, eager hands went up all around me. “How refreshing to be at a church with this level of honesty,” I thought to myself.
For those desiring a deeper commitment to CUB, six “Covenant Community” classes are offered. To be a part of Covenant Community, members must be baptized by immersion, complete the six classes and be involved in a small group. At present, there are “about 40” in Covenant Community, according to Dorrell.
With the exception of a part- time secretary, all leadership at CUB is volunteer. Although titles are not used and Dorrell’s name is not listed on any bulletins, he functions as the ‘senior pastor.’ He and two others function as the ‘covenant council,’ which Dorrell describes as “the closest thing to deacons in the Baptist church or elders in the Presbyterian church.” They are aiming for a ratio of one council member for every twelve covenant community members.
Soon the service will be over. We will all fold up our chairs and stand in line to hand them to the men inside the U-Haul style trailer. Soon that space under the bridges will look just like it did on Saturday night. Church Under the Bridge reminds me that as Christians we are a “pilgrim people” - on a journey with Jesus. It recreates for me the sense of transience and impermanence of traveling with Jesus and his followers. It reminds me of how Jesus sought out “the last, the least and the lost,” as my seminary New Testament professor used to say. As a middle class person with an abundance of education and possessions, it reminds me weekly of what is truly important. My ‘problems’ seem miniscule -- they are put into perspective when I come into contact with folks who are homeless, addicted or struggling to make it.
As worship concludes, I look to my right, at the steeple for the new seminary chapel gleaming in the Texas sunlight. All through church history, great cathedrals and church edifices have been built to glorify God. But in Waco, Texas -- the heart of the Bible belt with a church seemingly on every corner -- it seems to be holy irony that God would show up in such full measure under a bridge each week.
We sing our closing hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” as the semis change gears overhead. The traffic to our left turns green and the cars surge forward. I close my eyes and lift my hands. It is indeed holy ground.