One morning 30 years ago, Janet and Jimmy Dorrell were eating breakfast on the patio at Taco Cabana, which was located on Sixth Street, just off of Interstate 35. They noticed some homeless folks nearby and invited them over for a meal and some conversation. The conversation continued the next week and the week after that. Thus was born Church Under the Bridge (CUB), a ministry which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in September.
Jimmy has been the pastor of the church since its inception. For 40 years he was also the executive director of Mission Waco, a nonprofit he and Janet co-founded in 1978. He retired from that position in 2018 but still retains the title of president emeritus. Janet is director of Mission World, which has a goal “to eliminate poverty across the globe through a holistic approach and hands-on compassion,” according to its website.
Though Jimmy has been the face of Mission Waco and Church Under the Bridge, he’s quick to give credit to Janet, as she’s been an equal partner in ministry ever since there’s been a ministry.
Jimmy — who was the WACOAN’s Wacoan of the Year in 2016 — met recently with writer Kevin Tankersley at World Cup Café, another of Mission Waco’s ministries. They talked about the church’s upcoming anniversary and how Jimmy’s ministry very nearly had an embarrassing ending.
WACOAN: What will the church do to celebrate its anniversary?
Dorrell: The plan right now is two or three things. I’m almost positive we will be at Dewey Park for our Saturday dance and fun day. We want a chance just to be together and have fun and eat together. That will be on September 17.
And I’m working on (and I think it’ll happen) a coloring book for the kids about trolls. And we kind of flip it where, instead of the Billy Goats Gruff being the good guys who beat up the troll, I use the greatest-of-all-time, GOAT theme, and the goats are the bad guys who don’t care about the people under the bridge.
For us the biblical theme of who we are is that Christ always cared for the poor and the broken. And we don’t see them. We don’t. We don’t give them dignity. And so the irony is that Jesus typically would talk to the widow who gave her last two mites. The Good Samaritan who has nothing — he’s hated. He’s from a different culture. He stops to help the Jew in the street. For us it’s about how you break the barriers.
So the GOAT theme for us has been, Don’t feel sorry for them. We don’t want a bunch of relief. We’re not down there to give the people a bunch of stuff. In fact, one of the problems that a lot of middle-class approaches to Christianity have is we want to give people everything and take away their dignity. Empowerment’s the model at Mission Waco, Church Under the Bridge. Everything we all do has always been, how do we empower the poor? How do we help the poor be givers?
And so the way we designed church from the very beginning was this is not a bunch of middle-class Christians preaching at a bunch of poor people. Our byline is ‘Black, white and brown, rich and poor, educated in the streets and in the university, all serving the same God who makes us one.’ It’s that whole idea that we want to cross the racial and economic and social barriers and create oneness. Which, in John 17, all the verses are about.
And most of the time our model in middle-class America is, Let’s go help those people. No, let them help you. It’s a two-way street. And sometimes I’ve learned more about God from them.
The first book I wrote was called ‘Trolls and Truth.’ And it’s a story of 14 of our people under the bridge and what I learned about God from the poor. I tell a story about people that normally would be looked at as the nobodies that became my teachers.
A couple of weeks ago I had a lady come toward me at the end of the service who was poor. The normal thing is, She’s gonna come ask me for money. She got up there and handed me $20 to give away to somebody who needed it more. The paradox, the irony, of how we typically judge people because of their looks and their color and their background. So my faith, and I think the faith of a lot of people who come here, middle class people as well, is strengthened because we see ourselves as one, and we come from different backgrounds, different sins, different issues.
WACOAN: How did the church get started?
Dorrell: Janet and I were having breakfast at Taco Cabana. Mission Waco was six months old. We were eating outside on the porch. We looked over and saw the homeless who were the chronic homeless, and by definition, chronic means they’ve been homeless more than a year and have a disability. That’s the HUD definition. Or have a disability and have been in and out of homelessness for three years. So these were the hardcore. Some had mental illness (not all). Some had physical and mental disabilities.
And so we looked over and said, ‘You know, we don’t understand homelessness. Let’s go invite them over to breakfast. We buy [breakfast]. They become our teachers. We ask them, ‘Tell us about why you’re on the streets. What got you here? What would really get you off the streets?’ Four or five of them came over. And we sat there for a couple of hours. It was a great conversation. [We said,] ‘Let’s do it next week.’
They brought a few more friends. And so we sat out there again for two hours. Third week even more came, so we ended up having this little group, and I just got to understand their story.
Had I grown up like them, I would have been under the bridge. The abuse, the mental health, the physical disabilities, all the issues that they face — just awful. And so the streets, particularly that bridge, was their place to live. And it was a pretty rough and crude life.
The third week, breakfast cost me $250. And I said, ‘I can’t afford this. Let me see if I can find a way for you to have breakfast on Fridays.’ That’s when Mission Waco’s Friday Morning Breakfast started. We did it at the Lutheran church and now it’s at the [Mission Waco] Meyer Center.
The [homeless people] said, ‘Why don’t you come under the bridge and do a Bible study for us?’ [I said,] ‘Yeah, I’d love to do that.’
Janet sings and plays guitar, and so she and I went over the next Sunday, and it was loud overhead traffic. We had beat-up old chairs and sat around in a little circle. Five or six people showed up. We knew them a little bit by then. They listened and discussed with us and said, ‘This was good. Let’s do it again next week.’ So we came back. At their invitation, we kept coming. One guy on the corner, the next third week, held up a sign that didn’t say, ‘Will work for food.’ It said, ‘Come to Bible study.’ And sure enough it kept growing.
We went down to Radio Shack and bought a battery with two alligator clip microphones so we could hear a little better, and the circle got a little wider. Over the next few weeks and months three people from the community showed up and started sitting in with us. And then a Baylor kid or two walked across the street. And so it was this natural growth.
We never went down there to start church. They started calling it Church Under the Bridge. The whole thing for us was that it was authentic. This was real for us. It’s not my background. How do I love people I don’t understand, who are in and out of county jail or have schizophrenia or alcohol addiction or whatever. As it grew, we intentionally said, ‘Look, we’re not down here to fix you, to tell you what you need to do.’ But it was, ‘Prostitute lady, would you lead the prayer? Homeless guy, will you read the Scripture?’
And so after six months or so we said, ‘OK. Let’s just take up an offering. Nobody has to give anything. It’s free will.’ Whatever comes in, we’re gonna redistribute it. And so over the years, we took a little offering, and then we’d pass it back around, and everybody would take $2. And then after more people started coming, we didn’t have enough. So we had to figure out other ways to share, but it was their money given back to each of them.
We had no expenses. We were under a bridge. I had my own job at Mission Waco. We decided that the church should not be under Mission Waco because that’s a nonprofit with a board of directors. Most of the board didn’t come there. And so we separated out and said, ‘OK. We’ll have a different leadership structure.’ We have a full Church Under the Bridge council.
Then some Baylor kids started showing up. They wanted more than just traditional church. And then we had some law school students, three or four, and they would bring sandwiches every week. And so it just kept growing, and we kept getting bigger.
Then we had to change the way we sat. And so everything we’ve done through these 30 years was just the next step. It never was, Here’s a master plan, here’s what we’re planning on doing. And as we would deal with issues, I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do, and those were good lessons.
Down the road, we finally said, ‘OK, there’s so many of us, we just can’t hear in a circle.’ So we created a kind of a congregational look where there were chairs, and we’d talk from the front on a microphone, and but again, it was not, ‘I’m the teacher, and you’re the listeners.’ It’s like, ‘Everybody needs to be included on some level.’
And by the way — interruption here — I read a book somewhere early on that had been written by a professor at a seminary. It sent out students to research the poor and the homeless in particular and what their attitude toward the church is. That research showed that they have a very high view of God. Their theology of who God is, is high, but they have a very low view of clergy — at the bottom. And there were a lot of other things, like they liked country and western music more than they liked church music because they’re real stories about drinking and divorce and trains. So there were a lot of things that we learned, that this needs to be about their world, not about me teaching them ‘Amazing Grace.’ So music became important.
Once we had a guy get off the bus one day named Patrick. We had a little band, a worship team, and we’re terrible at singing. So this guy got off the bus and came over. His teeth were all black. He mumbled something. We didn’t understand a word he said. He did it again. Finally after about the fourth or fifth time, we realized he was asking if he could be on the worship team. We had a small little group there that was singing, including some of the poor, and he couldn’t even speak, much less sing. And he couldn’t play an instrument. Based on our theology and methodology, everybody is included here. So we had bongos open that day. We said, ‘Patrick, go up there and bang on the bongos.’ Well, he knocked them off. They went out in the street. He just couldn’t function. He just couldn’t be still. So that didn’t work. The next week we drew a box and said, ‘OK, Patrick. You just stand in the box up here, and you can lead.’ And he got out of his box, knocked over the music stands, got in everybody’s way. The third time we said, ‘OK, Patrick. We figured out what to do. We bought you an electric guitar.’ We just never plugged him in. So for 13 years he’s there playing and happy, and he’d stop in the middle and play like he knows sign language, and he didn’t really. I had a lady several months later, with tears in her eyes she said, ‘I didn’t know y’all had a deaf ministry.’ I said, ‘We don’t have a deaf ministry. That’s just Patrick.’ And so he actually lives down here in a group home, and they won’t let him come right now because he walked away one day without telling anybody.
This is not theologically-trained churchy people helping poor people out. This is, how do we learn to love each other across the barriers of our lives?
“He obstinately preferred being indoors because it made no sense to him to be outdoors since he was no longer homeless. The only exception to tolerating the outdoors was faithfully sitting on the front row of Church Under the Bridge as long as he was physically able to attend. He loved wearing his vintage CUB ‘These Are My Church Clothes’ T-shirt even until it was threadbare.”
—from the obituary of Kenneth Kucker, “a beloved member of Church Under the Bridge and Mission Waco communities,” written by Kathy Wise, associate director of Mission Waco, after Kucker died on January 21, 2022, at age 71.
WACOAN: What was your church experience when you were younger?
Dorrell: I grew up in the hippie culture. I was not a hippie. My mother wouldn’t let me grow my hair long. But it was the questioning culture of the hippie culture. I was your goody two shoes with Sunday school pins. But all of a sudden it’s like there’s this sense of questioning about, well, I love the church, and yet I am sad for the church. I think that’s the best way to say it.
In the Western culture — America, Europe, Canada — 53,000 people walk away from the church every week and don’t come back. The church is in trouble. That’s not new information. That’s growing information because it’s happening more now than ever.
But theologically and realistically I believe the church is the arm of God and should be the change agent in any culture. And yet we’ve been so co-opted and duplicitous that we have played more like the world, with all the church fights over the color of carpet and dinky little theology things. It was so refreshing to me that [Church Under the Bridge] didn’t have those fights. We weren’t denominational. We didn’t have issues that were about things that divided us. We just tried to love each other. And it was not always easy.
And the diversity changed [at CUB], where instead of just Janet and me and a bunch of poor and homeless people there were a few more Baylor kids there. And those kids would come to my house at night, and we’d have our little college group and talk about big issues. But the real essence of it was, how do we learn to love each other and be valid and share? That’s still there.
One of the challenges that has happened through the years, because we’ve been around so long, is that there were other groups who would come and look at [the church] or would go start their own thing. And occasionally I’d go visit some of those places. And unfortunately it had been co-opted to the place where they were doing the very thing that we didn’t. They were white, middle-class people bringing in food, giving it away. Buying stuff for [the poor]. Preaching at them. And they became grabby: ‘What did you bring me today?’ That’s the very essence of what you don’t want to do when you love.
Church is different than what we would call outreach. We all really work hard. We’d have the poor help us cook sometimes. We’d have them be engaged.
In fact, later on as I taught some classes at Baylor and was around Baylor students a lot, we’d do a mission trip. Instead of us taking just the middle class and Baylor kids down to do the mission trip, we would take the homeless too. The Baylor kids were worthless when it came to helping build stuff. They didn’t know which end of a saw to use. They were great at playing with urban children, which, we do that too. But the homeless guys in shelters or on the streets, many of them had been carpenters and mechanics. And so we’d all go together, and you watch this incredible work of God. All of a sudden, these two diverse populations are together on a mission trip. Now they’re not homeless and Baylor, but now they have names. Now they call each other by their names. When they come back to church next week, they sit next to each other.
So just barrier-breaking things that were simple. There was nothing about it that was well thought through. It’s just that relationships have always been our key.
“I’m in the prayer group. Every Sunday we collect prayer requests from other people, and then we meet Monday night and pray together. At first I didn’t know these people. So I just started praying for these people that I didn’t even know. But as I continued to pray for these people, the same people bringing prayer requests, you get to know people’s faces and get to know their stories, and everybody has different life circumstances, of course. But some of these people went through a lot of difficult hardships, more than I can ever imagine, and they still have faith. And then I see God is in their life, much bigger than I can ever imagine. I’m just thankful for the relationships I get to build.”
—Maria Park, CUB member since December 2019
WACOAN: How is the church run?
Dorrell: Over the years we developed some core values. If you go on the website [ChurchUnderTheBridge.org), there are our 9 Core Values. We don’t talk about them all that often, but we’re still not going to spend money on buildings. I don’t take a salary. We don’t have to pay for a building. As little money as comes in, it’s still discretionary.
We support work in Mexico City as Church Under the Bridge. We help an orphanage down there. We help children in Haiti go to school. We’re mission-minded, and the people who normally are the recipients are the givers. They may give $1 sometimes.
But all that to say we have such low overhead. Today the majority of church spending is buildings and staff. We don’t play that. That’s what’s fun about this.
WACOAN: When will you move back under the bridge?
Dorrell: We go back to the bridge, we think, in November. They tell us it will be before the end of the year. It could be December. Whoever it is has done a good job of getting it done quicker than they thought.
We were there, I guess about the 27th or 28th year, when TxDOT called. And TxDOT likes us. Some places where they do stuff they make you get permits, but we never had that problem. And in fact, I wrote a couple of articles for TxDOT. They said, ‘We’re doing 6 miles of reconstruction, and you’re gonna have to leave.’ And there was an article on the front page of the [Waco Tribune-Herald] that said, ‘Homeless church is about to be homeless.’ And so we were trying to figure out what we were gonna do because by then we had grown. We probably, on an average Sunday, would be around 250 or 275. And so we knew we’d have to make a pretty significant change.
And that’s when Chip Gaines called and said, ‘Hey, I know you, Jimmy. I know what you’re doing. We trust you. We’re closed on Sundays. Why don’t you come over here in the courtyard and do church over here until y’all get the bridge back?’ So we’ve been there two-and-a-half years.
It was real fun the day we left the bridge. I got a junior high band from Midway. We marched all the way playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ It was a cold day for March. But we marched to the over to the Silos. Chip and Joanna were there that day and welcomed us. But it’s worked out well. When they’ve had a marathon, we’ll go over to Dewey Park.
“I’ve always admired Jimmy’s work from afar. When I read about how the I-35 project would impact his church, we called him within the week,” [Chip] Gaines says. “When we both agreed that the location [of the Magnolia Silos] made sense for Church Under the Bridge, I knew we wanted to be a part of the solution for this congregation. We shook hands on it and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
—from “We Believe in Home,” Baylor Magazine, Winter 2020 edition, written by Charis Dietz
WACOAN: Besides the lack of noise, has anything changed since the church has been meeting at the Silos?
Dorrell: The one thing that was different was they couldn’t smoke inside the Silos, and they couldn’t bring pets in. A lot of the more chronic guys, they slept in tents, and their little dog was their family. That group by then was staying on a lot over under the 17th Street bridge. One of our church member couples would go over on Sunday afternoon and take food and do a small devotional thing. So with the exception of 10 percent maybe of people who didn’t feel comfortable or couldn’t bring their animals, it really never affected us for the bad.
In fact, in many ways, it was good because the loudness of the bridge is just so loud. I could be standing up, preaching or teaching, and I would look up and see just a whole group in the back talking that never even tried to listen, which was fine. They will come back, those that are interested. A huge number will rejoin us when we go back under the bridge.
The train comes through all the time near Magnolia. The first time we didn’t realize it was so loud, but we were used to loudness. You just have to stop when it comes through. We’ve got two choices. We can either stop and just be silent and you can pray, or we can sing Johnny Cash: ‘I hear that train a comin’ [from ‘Folsom Prison Blues’]. They voted for the second. We have stopped for 30 or 45 seconds every so often. But it’s been a good environment, a good place.
Our creativity is a big deal to us. I know that lower income folks don’t give a rip about my theological jargon. They don’t even understand it. Sometimes we can do better doing a skit around the prodigal son than me teaching about who the Samaritans are.
So there’s this balance, especially as the church is so multicultural. We’ve got PhDs from Baylor, and we’ve got people who can’t spell their name. How you preach to, speak to, teach to that kind of group is always challenging. We work real hard.
In the summer we do a lot of things. We have Recovery Sunday coming up, where we have a day we just commit to the folks in the community that are coming out of addiction. Our church has about 18 small groups that meet during the week that are more often not your typical Bible study group. A few of them are, but more are a recovery group or a group of people that had been physically abused as a child. They have a place to meet during the week somewhere in the community.
We have Creative Sundays where we’ll divide everybody up. You can do a praise dance, or you can write a poem, or you can be silent. And we’ll come back together, and everybody will share what they learned about how to be still before God. Instead of just perfunctory stuff that we do in church, there is that creative stuff.
We have Youth Sunday. The music is really a big deal because churches split over music. The old-school people say, ‘You’re not singing traditional hymns.’ That’s not our issue. Our issue is we’ve got diversity of every kind here. Most every week there’ll be a different worship leader from a different genre of music. One of our main groups is called 10th Leper, Paul Fields and those guys, a bunch of leftover hippies and loud, really good music. They don’t sing ‘Amazing Grace’ to [the tune of] ‘House of the Rising Sun;’ they sing it to ‘Purple Haze.’ Then we have a country-western group that comes through. We’re bringing in hip-hoppers.
Unity is a big deal in the Bible. The significance of the church is how we should be bridge-builders to one another. And music is one of those things that usually divides us. And you’re gonna come one weekend and you’re gonna hate the hip-hop. Just shut up. Your time’s coming next week.
Church people are just like anybody. They want their needs met. They become self-centered instead of willing to give up my preferences on preaching styles or music styles or whatever. It’s more important for me to sit here with Black, white, brown, Asian, all together. There’s something significant about that and symbolic that we’re one in Christ.
We do a lot of cultural stuff. Martin Luther King Day is a big deal. The day before we’ll have a big racial reconciliation thing we do. For Cinco de Mayo, we’ll have a piñata and celebrate. We’ll usually have a Black or Hispanic preacher come in. Everything we do is sloppy, but it’s culturally relevant. And so there’s a lot of things that we will do that are just out of the box. I have a Chinese church that will come over and lead sometimes.
We do have a meal every Sunday at 10 [a.m.]. We do that purposely because the old model of ‘You can listen to my sermon and then I’ll feed you,’ is inconsistent with our thinking. So you can eat and leave. Most don’t. The group that comes in to cook is from local churches or nonprofits. I probably have a list of 15 to 20 groups. Every week it’s just a different group.
Last Sunday was our Church in the City. At least once or twice a year we’ll have Church in the City. We had breakfast at 8:30 at the Silos and then passed out the tools. We painted houses. We mowed yards. We went to visit the mentally ill and the prisoners. We wrote letters to the prisoners.
By the way that’s a real fun part of what we do. Membership is pretty sloppy. It’s not a form [to fill out], and you don’t have to be a Christian to be a member. We tell people, if you’re a member of the church and you go to county jail, we can send you money, but your name has got to be in our list, so a lot of people join because they’re pretty sure they’re going back to county jail or prison.
One of our small groups writes letters [to prisoners], so a lot of our people that have been in trouble, even if it’s little stuff, all of a sudden, they get a letter from their church while they’re in jail, and the other inmates can’t believe it. And we give them, I believe, $20 once a month to buy commissary.
“It’s not a conventional format. But I felt peace. I felt wholeness because we are with the people that Jesus cares about — everybody. I want to be with them. Know them. There’s still a lot of barriers. But I get to know the names. I get to shake hands. I get to see them week after week.
—Dr. Ken Park, CUB member since December 2019
WACOAN: The church has an office, right? I think I’ve driven by it a bunch of times.
Dorrell: We have a little office over at 713 North 18th Street. [The building] was built in 1925. Way, way back, it was a grocery store, then a print shop, and then Mission Waco bought it for a thrift store, and then we bought it from Mission Waco.
We also have a lot underneath the 17th Street bridge that we bought. It’s right next to the most worthless lot in town, but that’s where the homeless live. It gave us a way to be over there.
We have a budget. And we’re very careful. We try to give away at least 40 percent of our money to others.
When we had the pandemic, we went out and had a huge garage sale and raised $10,000 so we could help people pay the rent. How we spend our money is a reflection of who we are.
We love that CUB is a place of love and inclusion. Our members are so diverse, yet we all belong and bring our unique qualities together to serve God. We break with most church traditions, but the traditions that CUB embraces are beautiful ones, such as our community workday [Church in the City] where we all go out to serve others around Waco. We also have Creative Sunday where we worship in ways that include painting and writing poetry.[pullquote] “But one aspect both Dave [Achterhof] and I feel aligns with our values — besides being a church for homeless and loving those Jesus specifically called us to in Matthew 25:35 — is that CUB is creation-care focused. We as a church acknowledge that a failure to care for nature results in further social injustices for the impoverished and marginalized. This church strives to emulate Christ and carry out his commands in a way unlike any other we’ve seen.
—Dr. Jacquelyn Duke. She and her husband, David Achterhof, have been CUB members for about eight years.
WACOAN: You said earlier that you learned what to do. And then you learned what not to do. What are some of those things you learned not to do?
Dorrell: Giving stuff out. Because there’s this built-in proclivity to believe that the church is supposed to give away stuff, which it’s terrible to do it that way. No question about it, we need to be helping people.
There’s a book called ‘When Helping Hurts’ [by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert] that’s a lot of the model that we use here at Mission Waco. Relief and empowerment are two different words. Yeah, there are times we need to help somebody eat. There are times we need to put people in a hotel. And we know how to do that pretty well when it’s crisis stuff. But if I’m not moving them on from that, if they keep coming back saying, ‘I need another night in the hotel,’ then I’m doing more harm than good. It’s like raising a teenager. At some point you’ve just got to help them take their step. We’ll work together with you. We’re not gonna fix you.
What does it mean to give? Our model of giving in America is pretty challenged. We just don’t do a good job at that. So people are getting that more and more, not giving stuff.
I was a youth director for 11 years of my life. I still feel like I’m a youth director. We play, we mess, we play touch football together. I have found the same things that I learned playing and teaching teenagers is really the same thing here. We just got old. We’re just a bunch of old people now. We haven’t done it as much the last two years because of COVID. We would go bowling together. We would go roller skating, things that most of them had never done. It’s just so fun. That’s where relationships begin. It’s in the middle of the context of play and respect and listening.
Listening is not something most of us theological types were taught in seminary. We have the answers. We have the verses. We know. You don’t come [to Church Under the Bridge] to get fixed. We don’t do that. We will respect you as a person. We have to do a lot of things to help people survive. But it’s messy. Our church is messy.
I hate being called Reverend. Theologically, I’m no more important than they are. I’m just another person. My path was different. God blessed me in some ways, but I need you, and you need me. We’re just friends. So call me Jimmy. I don’t do the titles.
I teach two classes at Truett [Seminary], and I won’t let [the students] call me anything but Jimmy. But there’s that temptation. They want to put you up on a pedestal, but I’m not going there.
In the ‘When Helping Hurts’ book the last chapter is on mission trips. At the church we have exposure trips. I just got back from Mexico City, where we work with the poor. The goal there is not to go help fix Mexicans. It’s for these guys to go with me and cry again for the first time. They just realize, ‘My word. I can’t believe this is going on.’
There’s another book called ‘Toxic Charity,’ written by a buddy of mine, Bob Lupton out of Atlanta. And same thing — these good intentions that go afoul because we just don’t understand people.
WACOAN: Where did you do youth ministry?
Dorrell: When I came to Baylor in ’68. I had a ministry guidance class spring semester of my freshman year. The youth director left that summer, so I became the youth director at Highland Baptist. I stayed all the way through Baylor and two more years afterwards.
WACOAN: Thirty years ago you could have bought a building in downtown Waco for pretty cheap. Did the church ever consider doing that?
Dorrell: Well, we didn’t have money. And that is a tempting thing to do. Something people say is, ‘Someday, I’m gonna win the lottery and buy y’all a building.’ We don’t want a building.
WACOAN: Was buying a building ever a consideration?
Dorrell: No. This is where the people were. And we go to them. They don’t come to us. I’d say 30 percent of the folks would not come in if we had a building.
We would rent a room occasionally over at the Clarion Inn when it was still there. If there was a guy, more chronic, more mentally ill, he could stand at the back. He could eat. He could hang around. It might take three years before he sat down in a chair. But anytime we’d go in a building, they wouldn’t go in at all. So our goal was to go where they were and hang out where they were.
There were several Sundays where [most] churches didn’t meet because it was so cold. And we met outside. We’re not a real smart church. Even over at the Silos, when Snowmageddon happened, we met that Sunday. It was beautiful. We had a Baylor student who had been coming to our church, and she was a ballet dancer, and she did she did ballet in the snow as a part of the worship service. It was beautiful. It was absolutely beautiful.
When the pandemic hit, there were probably eight or nine weeks we couldn’t meet. But because we were feeding the homeless, we weren’t worried about getting in trouble because we were an essential service of sorts because that’s where a lot of them ate on Sunday. We just went out to the front on Webster [Avenue], and we’d bring the food and feed the people in the street and have a little communion if they wanted to have that. So we really didn’t meet for only about eight or nine weeks, and then we were back at the Silos.
WACOAN: How long do you think you’re going to continue at Church Under the Bridge?
Dorrell: Good question. Lord willing, I will keep doing this a few more years.
Like at Mission Waco, one of the goals is, how do I give this away? But when you can step away from all that we created here and be in the background, that’s what real maturity is.
The challenge with Church Under the Bridge is the right theological vision because I’m not looking for a good preacher. I’m not looking for Black, white or brown. I’m looking for a person who can love people well and communicate in a culture and be able to speak truth to it. If that person walked in one Sunday, and I thought, ‘This is the person,’ I would start working on the departure.
We do have a church staff now. We have a half-time church secretary. But the answer is, I’m looking.
By the grace of God, I’m healthy. I didn’t expect it. Both my parents died around 50 or 60 years old. I’m 72. I didn’t expect to be around this long. But I love it. I’m not interested in trying to get out. This is what I want to do the rest of my life.
I can’t quit because these are my friends, whichever umbrella [CUB or Mission Waco] it’s under. I’m still living life fully. But I can choose my projects now. So that’s what’s been fun. I’m not in any hurry to quit anything. I mean, I could get sick tomorrow. I went to my 50th high school reunion a few years ago. They were old. They were on their walkers, talking about their triple bypasses. I’m like, ‘Thank you, God. I feel so healthy.’
Janet, my wife, is in India right now. She’s been there six weeks. We’re global people, so we’ll work in the world a little bit and we’ll do some stuff around here.
When the Oak Lodge [Motor Inn, at 1024 Austin Avenue] shut down, about a third of those people in the hotel are my members. And so I’d already retired [at Mission Waco], and I’d go to bed at night and think, ‘What do you do?’ Mission Waco has a shelter, so some of them went there.
I went over one morning to check on them early, about seven o’clock. The rumors were spreading they were gonna have to move out, but they’d heard that before, so most of them didn’t believe it. This one lady, she was pretty rough looking. And I said, ‘Hey. I’m Jimmy. Have you heard anything yet about having to move out?’ She said, ‘We’re not gonna have to move out.’ So I said, ‘What do you do?’ She said, ‘I’m a prostitute.’ I don’t know what the right answer to that is — well, congratulations? What do you say? She said, ‘I really didn’t make much money last night. I’m hungry.’ Now I don’t usually do this. We don’t give money out, but I just felt this is probably the right thing, so I’m handing her $5, and two police cars drive by. I thought, ‘This is it. This is the end of my ministry.’
WACOAN: What’s something good that you’ve read lately?
Dorrell: ‘Jesus and John Wayne’ [by Kristin Kobes du Mez].
This [No Need Among You] conference we’re about to have [in October] will bring in people from all over Texas. Some conservative, some more liberal than that. [Baylor history professor and author] Dr. Beth Allison Barr will be speaking. The woman who wrote ‘Jesus and John Wayne’ is a friend of Beth’s. They were on a panel over at Truett on racial reconciliation.
And I’m rereading ‘The Screwtape Letters’ [by C.S. Lewis]. I love creative writing. I’ve got a stack of books I’m reading through right now.