To borrow the essence of a Biblical parable, the seed that Jimmy and Janet Dorrell tossed on Sept. 20, 1992, landed in good soil.
The work they started that day has enabled the least of society, the poor, homeless and hopeless, to find their very own place to worship. It became known as Church Under the Bridge and on Sunday celebrates 25 years of bringing together in fellowship “black, brown, white, rich and poor, educated on the streets or at a university, all serving God,” Jimmy Dorrell likes to say.
In icy weather that forces conventional churches to postpone services, and in the heat of a summer sun, people down on their luck stand with professionals in suits, students and the simply curious to worship and sing of God.
Kathy Wise, a staffer at Mission Waco/Mission World, another ministry Dorrell started about the same time as Church Under the Bridge, said the church that meets under the Interstate 35 overpass at South Fourth Street is “dysfunctional.”
She means “dysfunctional” as a compliment. Where else would people fresh out of drug rehabilitation take up the morning collection, holding jars for bills and change as they walk among visitors in folding chairs?
“I see the courage of those who attend these services, the gratefulness, the joy,” Wise said. “It gives me permission to also be joyful whatever my situation.
“I’m not saying this to judge others, because there is sincerity in all types of churches. But in the past, with my middle-class background, it was easy to hide behind any facade I chose. At Church Under the Bridge, people read behind any facade you want to put up.”
David Daniel, 68, is among those who found purpose for his life, as well as acceptance and love, at Church Under the Bridge. He binged on booze and crack cocaine, landed in jail more times than he can remember, even suffered a gunshot wound to his head. But change for the better eluded him until he found himself on the receiving end of kindness.
Hugs and handshakes and words of encouragement swept over him during a service less than a year after Church Under the Bridge started.
“I could not change my life, neither could my parole officer, a judge, my mom and dad, but a handful of people at C-U-B who shook my hand and told me they loved me did change my life,” Daniel said.
After his spiritual conversion, Jimmy and Janet Dorrell asked him to do chores around their house, and he eventually was hired by Mission Waco and now serves as produce manager at Jubilee Market, a nonprofit grocery store at North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue.
That intersection also is home to the offices of Mission Waco/Mission World, World Cup Cafe and Jubilee Theatre. Mission Waco, which also turned 25 this year, supports ministries that include a faith-based alcohol and drug rehabilitation program called Manna House, as well as a program called “Poverty Simulation,” which has exposed more than 24,000 people from around the country to three days of living like the poor and homeless.
Another success story involves a former prostitute who trolled for customers on North 15th Street decades ago, Dorrell said. A runaway hooked on crack cocaine, she was befriended by Janet Dorrell and made a commitment to Christ during a visit to Church Under the Bridge.
“She joins us on missionary trips to Haiti, having wept like a child when she received her passport,” Jimmy Dorrell said. He said he would prefer not to publicly identify the woman now in her 50s.
Dorrell said Church Under the Bridge is just that, a church, though it is a place of worship without walls. Congregants will hear a sermon by Dorrell or an invited speaker and enjoy praise music.
At least once a year, on Easter Sunday, Dorrell conducts a baptismal service at Camp Hope on the Middle Bosque River, usually dipping 15 to 25 people who have made professions of faith.
“We’ve had 50 or 60 weddings, funerals, small-group classes,” he said. “We’ve even had homeless people pool their money to send two or three youngsters to school. They become part of the church, its work, and are not just on the receiving end. We don’t feel sorry for them, pat them on the head. We give them dignity and treat them with respect.”
From modest beginnings 25 years ago, when Dorrell treated a handful of homeless men to breakfast at Taco Cabana and picked their brain about the plight of those living on the street, Church Under the Bridge has experienced exponential growth. It counts 100 to 150 “regulars,” who show up regardless of the circumstances. On nice spring days, and when Baylor University is in session, crowds may swell three times that number.
“On one anniversary Sunday, I remember a turnout of about 600 people,” Wise said. “I would guess a fourth of the crowd any Sunday is homeless.”
The church has an annual budget of $148,000, which is met primarily with tithes and offerings, Dorrell said. Volunteers also perform many tasks to keep the church operating smoothly. Funds pay half the salary of associate pastor Charles Benson, a secretary and a small-group leader.
“We don’t have to worry about paying for a building because the state of Texas provides us one,” Dorrell joked, referring to the overpass that shelters those who worship each Sunday. “We spend much of our funds on helping people in Waco and around the world.”
Trips to Haiti and Mexico have become traditions at Mission Waco, as have churches statewide volunteering to feed congregants at Church Under the Bridge, setting up serving tables, chairs and food dishes.
“Central Christian, Harris Creek, First Woodway and First Methodist all commit to the cause, as do three churches in Dallas. A group from Clifton fries fish, and Pizza Hut has been very good to us,” Dorrell said. “I have a list of 84 churches to which I send emails, and my Sundays are filled with food commitments until January.”
Evan Rogers, who serves as pastor of Midland’s Church Under The Bridge, said he considers Dorrell a role model and follows his formula for success.
“I attended Mission Waco’s ‘Poverty Simulation’ program, visited Church Under The Bridge and have read all of Jimmy’s books,” Rogers said. “We see each other every year, and I try to emulate what he does.
“I’ve been in this ministry five years and I understand how quickly ministers can become callous about what they see and hear. But when I see Jimmy talk and speak, I just hope my heart is like his 20 years down the line. It’s not easy to continue to have a heart for the people you serve, but he does. If there is such a thing as a church hero, he’s mine.”
Bob Darden, a Baylor journalism professor and former deacon at Seventh and James Baptist Church, said he is a longtime supporter of Mission Waco and Church Under The Bridge, and admirer of the Dorrells.
“It represents an extraordinary ministry for the homeless. They love people, feed people, provide a safe place to worship right next to those in three-piece business suits,” Darden said. “What’s miraculous is the number of Baylor kids who attend. These are students Baylor has recruited from non-denominational megachurches. They are sweet, have not been exposed to a lot, and they see people who may not dress the same way or smell the same way. Their expressions tell it all.”
Darden said he’s tempted to require every student he has to attend at least one Church Under the Bridge service.
“I have to tip my hat to Mission Waco,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago there was nothing in Waco for the homeless. Granted, we’re not a rich city, but this was embarrassing. They were all over downtown, the hungry, the schizophrenic. Mission Waco and Jimmy and Janet Dorrell stepped in and filled a civic need no one else was interested in filling.”
Whether Church Under the Bridge holds an enviable position within Waco’s religious community, Darden could not say.
“I know it indicts me,” he said. “They are there in all kinds of weather, serving the weakest and neediest in our community, while we are safe in our comfortable homes and churches. Other people have to reconcile that in their own minds, but I don’t think Jimmy gives one thought about what other churches are feeling. He’s worried about providing food and shelter.
“You can do lip service to what the Bible says, or you can do what the Bible says.”
Matt Snowden, pastor of Waco’s First Baptist Church, said in an email note that he admires Church Under the Bridge.
“It is a biblically faithful, Spirit-filled church. They love Jesus, one another, Waco and the World. We pray for many more years of life and ministry,” he said in his message delivered Saturday.
Delvin Atchison, director of the Great Commission Team of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and former pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Waco, will speak at Sunday’s anniversary celebration.
“I’m just honored to be invited,” Atchison said. “I also spoke at the 15th anniversary celebration, so this is kind of a homecoming.”
He has been traveling to churches impacted by Hurricane Harvey and has met congregation members going through tough times, he said.
“But there are people in our communities with needs all the time, not just physical needs but spiritual needs as well,” he said. “That’s what Church Under the Bridge is all about, living out Jesus’ message to go and serve.”
Also Sunday, Mission Waco is sponsoring “Walk for the Homeless,” which starts at 8 a.m. at the Mission Waco Meyer Center, 1226 Washington Ave., and ends at the Salvation Army office, a 1.2-mile trip.
Worship starts under the bridge at 11 a.m., followed by a meal.
A 25th anniversary party was also held Saturday at the Bledsoe Miller Recreation Center, where participants enjoyed a meal and games.