For decades they’ve met under this bridge, even on cold days like today. It’s an unusually frigid Sunday morning in Waco, TX. Over a hundred folks start lining up early for a hot meal and warm conversation beneath the roar of Interstate 35 traffic.
Meanwhile Pastor Jimmy Dorrell takes the microphone, signaling the start of worship. He wears jeans, sneakers, a zip-up hoodie, and a Baylor baseball cap and eventually loses himself in the crowd as he makes way for a man and his keyboard to take the stage. Worship is a colorful array of tunes, from standard hymns to creative gospel renditions of popular songs. Today it’s Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight:” Holy Spirit, flowing the air tonight, oh Lord…
This is Church Under the Bridge (CUB): a small stage, two microphones, and rows of metal folding chairs. It’s unconventional and unexpected and delightfully offbeat. It’s a refreshing convergence of all walks of life—where the homeless meets the homeowner, where elderly meets college-aged, where black meets white.
“[My wife] Janet and I were having breakfast one Friday morning 26 years ago at Taco Cabana, which is just across from the Interstate,” Dorrell says, as he recounts CUB’s inception. “We looked over and the homeless were sleeping under the bridge. We thought, ‘We don’t understand homelessness, so let’s go let them teach us.’ So we went over and said, ‘We’ll buy breakfast if you come teach us about homelessness.’”
That led to a two-hour conversation with four men. The next week the four men brought friends, and then by the third week, it had become too big and too expensive to continue the breakfast-style meeting.
“By the third week breakfast was about $250 and I thought, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’ And they said, ‘Hey, come under our bridge and do a Bible study.’ Janet sang and played guitar, and we sat around in chairs and said, ‘This is great, let’s do it again next week.’”
By the fourth meeting, five had become twelve, and they began to call their gathering simply, “Church Under the Bridge.”
“We just kept meeting and figuring it out and bringing sandwiches, and it became this sweet little fellowship,” Dorrell says. “My heart was so hungry for church renewal. We were in the middle of something that God had just pulled together and we felt privileged to be a part of it.”
Now in its 25th year, CUB comprises 300 congregants and has become a model church for the unchurched. Without a building or operating costs, CUB is able to give away half of its income to address various community needs.
“We don’t do buildings, I don’t take a salary. When you start paying for buildings and staff members, then 70 percent of your budget is already gone—and you can’t give much more away. Most of our churches nowadays are so locked into debt that the Spirit can’t break in; we [try to] push out truth by our structures ourselves.”
Make no mistake, CUB is not an outreach ministry. “We say very clearly it is church with the poor, not church for the poor,” Dorrell says. That distinction is important to Dorrell and his vision for the church.
“This is church with the poor, not church for the poor.”
“Jesus taught generosity from a widow with her last two mites. Broken people understand the kingdom more than we do—I don’t care how many seminaries you go to. I am humbled every Sunday when I’m under that bridge…When I look out, it’s the kingdom. This is God’s table. Every brand, every voice, a person from every color and background. I get to be part of something bigger than me and I love it. I’m humbled.”
The next day we meet Dorrell for breakfast at World Cup Café, a charming diner and fair trade market that trains local men and women in the food service industry. “I don’t have an office; this is where I meet everybody. This is where I gain 30 pounds every day,” he says with a laugh.
What was once adjacent to a XXX theater is now the number one breakfast spot in town, thanks to Dorrell’s dream for this community. “We believe that we are people of the light and we push back the darkness, we don’t run away from it,” he says.
World Cup Café is a product of Dorrell’s non-profit organization, Mission Waco, which celebrated its 26th anniversary earlier this year. At 27.4 percent, the poverty level in Waco is nearly double that of the national average. With half of its employees coming from the lower-income community, World Cup is contributing to a revitalization never before seen in this part of town.
“We believe that we are people of the light and we push back the darkness, we don’t run away from it.”
Similar to the congregation at CUB, World Cup feeds a tapestry of people of all walks of life, and Dorrell seems to know most of them. Our conversation is frequently waylaid by familiar faces and Dorrell’s warm engagement with them.
Across the street is another of Dorrell’s visions-come-to-life: Jubilee Food Market, a community grocery store established by Mission Waco to address the area’s “food desert” that often forced its low-income residents to pay high prices and travel long distances for food.
“The first thing we did when we bought the old store was bring the neighborhood together—our empowerment model. We made a list of twelve things that it should be, and we voted, and 77 percent wanted the grocery store,” Dorrell says.
After a filling breakfast we walk over to tour this quaint neighborhood market. We don’t get far down the aisles before Dorrell is locked in conversation with the store manager about what they should stock and how their newest items are selling. He asks about Zuko, an agua fresca powdered drink mix, stocked with the Mexican community in mind.
We stroll a few more aisles and encounter a family of three picking up oxtail. Dorrell greets them and says, “When we opened the store, I asked the neighborhood, what do we not have that y’all want, and oxtail was the number one choice,” he says.
“Yeah man, oxtail is so good!” replies the shopper in agreement.
Stop three on our grand tour of this corner of the neighborhood is Urban REAP (Renewable Energy and Agriculture Project). Situated just next door to Jubilee Market, Urban REAP was established through Mission Waco to sustainably grow food for the community while teaching natural resource stewardship. Complete with an aquaponics greenhouse, 36 solar panels, a 3,000 gallon rainwater collection tank, an industrial composter, and demonstration beds, Urban REAP is an astonishing project to witness. Its fresh produce is sold and walked over to the Jubilee Market and World Cup Café, cutting out transport costs and carbon emissions. Food waste from the market and cafe are walked back over to Urban REAP where they are composted and put back into the soil to grow the next round of produce. It’s a model of food and energy production that Dorrell hopes will train children, youth, and adults to be better stewards of the creation entrusted to us by God.
Mission Waco’s three projects at N 15th Street and Colcord Avenue are impressive to be sure, but this triangle of community transformation is just one small, visible glimpse of Dorrell’s longstanding fingerprint on Waco.
Dorrell came to Waco to attend Baylor University in 1968, a time when little leagues and restrooms and water fountains were segregated by skin color. Dorrell became a youth director and then a recreation supervisor at a state home in Waco for 300 kids who had been abused and neglected. He remembers his first day on the job being one of the worst days of his life.
“I went to God and reminded him how important I thought I was. I had a seven year Sunday school attendance pin, I had been youth directing for five years, I was helping him bring in the kingdom, and he didn’t seem to appreciate all my gifts,” he says. “It was one of those ah-ha nights in my life where I faced the fact that I had been blessed, I knew the Bible verses, but I didn’t know how to love somebody who can’t love you back.”
Dorrell remained committed to that role for three years, and it changed his life. “It was sort of discipleship training on steroids,” he recalls. “I was trying to deal with [questions like], ‘Do I want to be a seminary kid, do I want to be a pastor, what do I want to do?’ I had all these Sunday school pins but I didn’t know how to follow Christ in that way. I started to think, ‘What am I doing with my life? I don’t want to be another middle-class pastor in a church.’”
Galvanized by this question, Dorrell and his wife Janet, along with their one-year-old son, sold their house and booked around-the-world plane tickets. For four-and-a-half months they traversed the globe, from Europe to Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and India, to “have their hearts broken for the world.” While in Calcutta, they bore witness to Mother Teresa’s work, and it was at her “Home for the Dying” that Dorrell realized his problem wasn’t physical leprosy—it was, as he says, “spiritual leprosy.”
“I was a good Pharisee but my heart had gotten hard. So for the first time in years I cried. I came to the point where I realized my life didn’t look like Jesus at all.”
Before returning to Waco, the Dorrells took stock of their life and said, “Whatever season we’re going to be in, we can’t go back to middle-class America. We’ve seen too much, our hearts have been too broken.”
That conviction led them to buy a run-down house in a poor neighborhood of Waco and build a basketball court on the adjacent lot.
“I was a good Pharisee but my heart had gotten hard. I came to the point where I realized my life didn’t look like Jesus at all.”
“It was a very natural, bottom-up mindset. We just responded. We couldn’t be a relief agency, we didn’t have much money, but we had four kids and a basketball court,” Dorrell says.
Mission Waco grew out of the friendships that emerged from that environment and a bottom-up model of service. “We have a little mantra that says, ‘The people with the problem must be a part of the solution.’ We’re not going to go fix anybody, we’re going to love them, we’re going to listen to them, we’re going to help them but they’ve got to do their part. We’re all just friends. It’s very non-threatening and never top-down.”
Also out of that theology and methodology came new models for service. “[At Christmas time] we decided to flip this thing on its head and instead of giving away the toys, [we said], ‘Let’s give the parents some dignity and figure out how they can buy the toys.’ We have this huge Christmas deal where hundreds of families come to a couple of seminars and then they get a voucher, and then people donate toys, and then these neighborhood people can buy a toy for 20 percent of the actual cost so that a $10 toy becomes a $2 toy. They get the dignity of putting their own toy under the Christmas tree.”
Therein lies the key to Dorrell’s ministry in Waco for the last 25 years: upholding dignity. By empowering others to provide for themselves and their families, Dorrell has witnessed true, prevailing transformation in his community. And it all started by buying a run-down house on the “wrong” side of town.
“Incarnational living in a broken neighborhood is the best thing we ever did,” says Dorrell. “The average person won’t come over here because it’s not safe, they want their kids to go to better schools, they want to take care of their families. Does anyone want to live out radical faith to a generation that needs it?”
“It all started by buying a run-down house on the “wrong” side of town.”
Waco is no stranger to the spotlight, whether for its world-renowned university or television fame. While “Fixer Upper” can be credited with the modern resurgence of attention on the city, Jimmy Dorrell has been committed to Waco for decades—long before swaths of tourists and home buyers flocked there. In his book When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett writes, “We are not bringing Christ to poor communities. He has been active in these communities since the creation of the world, sustaining them…A significant part of working in poor communities involves discovering and appreciating what God has been doing there for a long time.” Dorrell is a veteran at this kind of witnessing, and he has 25 years worth of stories to show for it. Let him tell you about them sometime over a plate of hash and eggs.
To learn more, check out Dorrell’s books Dead Church Walking, Plunge2Poverty, and Trolls & Truth.
Photos by Corey O’Connell.