Lugging backpacks and Hefty bags on Sunday at sunrise, they trickle in to the expanse of dirt and gravel under Interstate 35. Littering this city block between 4th and 5th streets in Waco, Texas are taillight shards, pigeon feathers, and at least one dead bat. The men sit mostly in solitude at the base of support columns, waiting for something to happen.

More than a dozen are there when, just after 9, a van with men from two drug rehab centers eases over the curb and parks. Two pickup trucks follow with trailers of folding chairs and sound equipment. One flatbed truck doubles as a stage. Recovering addicts line up chairs beneath the northbound lanes.

A hoodless, bumperless Chevy pickup arrives. Made from '73 to '85 parts, its burnt-orange bed is filled with balding tires, plastic drums, aluminum cans, wire-tangled innards of mechanical devices, and a push broom. Former drug addict and ex-con Kenneth Kucker gets out, slams its blue door, and hands a visitor a peppermint, his smile peeking through a lopped-off ZZ Top beard. He smells of the axle grease that permeates his jeans, but he's dressed for worship in his best T-shirt that reads CHURCH UNDER THE BRIDGE.

"It's a humble bridge," Kucker says. "Today it's going to be sanctified."

For Waco's homeless and hard-living people, there may be no safer place than this bridge on Sunday morning—as safe from street crime as from the glares of worshipers in other churches.

The interdenominational Church Under the Bridge (CUB) began in 1992 when Baylor professor Jimmy Dorrell, 54, began a Bible study for homeless men who slept under this overpass. The group grew to include more homeless, poor, drug addicts, prostitutes, and bikers. They were later joined by others who had no church experience or felt they didn't fit into area congregations.

Now the people who worship under the bridge are a demographic snapshot of this city of 100,000 people and 257 churches. Black, white, Asian, and Latino students from Baylor University, and others from the upper middle class, form the body of Christ with the down-and-out of all colors.

CUB's calling is to be a church to the unchurched of all socioeconomic levels and races, and to serve the poor and marginalized. Ex-prisoners and food-stamp recipients worship with the well-heeled and educated. Along with breaking down class barriers, racial reconciliation is one of the church's main pillars. At one service, Dorrell had the assembled break into small groups to talk about any prejudice they harbored, and to pray for forgiveness.

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"Several times a year," Dorrell says, "we address the issue in a sermon, have a couple of different-race friends or marriage folks share their struggle and victories, and then pass out a list of questions for the racially mixed groups to discuss."

The church's core values include a rejection of attractive "holy" buildings; 51 percent of offerings support outreach in Waco, Haiti, and India. Nothing goes to rent and utilities. Should prospective construction work to widen the highway or other events keep worshipers from their usual space, CUB has purchased another piece of land for $3,000.

"It is a backup, next to another bridge where the homeless used to sleep, which we can use if we are ever run out from our current spot," Dorrell says. "Even at that vacant lot, we have no intentions of building a facility."

From Calcutta to Waco

Kucker, 54, drove a Cadillac in the 1970s when he earned $50,000 a year as body shop mechanic. He's a Vietnam vet with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a self-described former "junkie, car thief, and alcoholic" who became a Christian while in prison. Once out, he drifted, homeless, among the big cities of Texas. He moved to Waco to be near the Veterans Administration hospital psychiatric ward.

Churches he tried to attend—two in Waco and one in Houston, where a security guard confronted him two steps onto the church grounds—all threw him out because of his appearance. In Waco he was living in a Geo Metro with an Apple computer in back when he heard about free meals under the bridge. He was hungry enough to check it out.

Today, 10 years later, he's a church leader living in an apartment owned by CUB's relief and development arm, Mission Waco.

Dorrell parks his pickup a few cars over from Kucker's and a couple of rows from a Mercedes-Benz SUV. The plump, gray-bearded pastor in shorts and a Baylor T-shirt greets folks with handshakes, back pats and hugs so hearty that at times they lift people off the ground. He mingles among indigents and Mercedes drivers alike with gestures of acceptance and welcome.

Dorrell's journey to the bridge began in the 1970s, when he was a missionary to lepers in Calcutta and New Delhi slums. There he had something of an epiphany. He believed the church is the primary agent of change in the world, but surrounded by India's abysmal poverty, he asked himself, What is the church doing to incarnate Christ?

"It's Jesus who sat at the well with the prostitute," he says. In contrast, many U.S. churches install burglar bars on their windows and hire bouncers to keep away people who look unusual. Or they move to the suburbs and isolate themselves from things Jesus called his followers to do.

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"The church has got to rediscover its purpose in a postmodern culture, when absolute truth is no longer accepted by the mainstream," Dorrell says. "Unchurched people are looking for something that speaks genuineness to them."

Church Under the Bridge, he says, serves as a call for renewal for the church in America to be about the Father's business.

"In the church, I have crack addicts, prostitutes, criminals, but I also have materialists, power mongers and arrogant Pharisees," Dorrell says. "The gospel is just as much for them as it is the addict. All are accepted where they are."

At 9:30, Dorrell joins a circle of about 15 folding chairs in the sunny area between the northbound and southbound bridges to lead a Bible study for mostly homeless men. Dorrell's booming voice carries over traffic overhead as a box of doughnuts gets passed around.

About 100 feet away, Conrad Lahr sets up a circle almost twice that size, including a small loudspeaker and mike, for the Recovery Under the Bridge 12-step meeting for alcoholics and other addicts.

Lahr, 39, began taking drugs as a wealthy New York teen. In and out of rehab and homelessness, he lost his wife to prison and his kids to the state. Hopelessly addicted, on July 21, 2002, he prayed, "God, help me." That day he was driving I-35 north toward Dallas when he saw a Salvation Army sign in Waco. He took the next exit and doubled back, where he found the bridge gathering. He thought it was a block party and stopped.

Twenty minutes later, he knew he was supposed to be there. A week later, he was in Mission Waco's Manna House rehab, where he became a Christian.

Now he directs a Mission Waco halfway house and does freelance carpentry. On Sundays he leads the CUB recovery group. Last year he reconciled with his parents, whom he hadn't talked to in 13 years. His father offered him a $60,000 job as a driver, which Lahr turned down. "I'd probably be drunk," he says of what he'd do with a big salary. "I don't need money. This is my family now."

Other churches often ask Dorrell to tell success stories like those of Lahr and Kucker. But success for Dorrell may be that Howard, a bridge fixture legendary for his alcoholism, didn't get drunk today.

"I don't have to tell these people they're bad and nasty," Dorrell says. "The world tells them that all the time." What is important is that, for at least the 90 minutes they spend at a Sunday service under I-35, they know somebody cares, he says. "They may have robbed a store the night before, [but] our role as the church is to love them as Jesus loved them."

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It's not that the CUB disregards the need for repentance and obedience, Dorrell says, but God's incredible love—not more condemnation—is what brings people to repentance. "We do preach the reality that there has to be a change" in behavior after conversion, he says. During church services, he often encourages people to "make things right" with each other and straighten out various areas of their lives.

Congregant Charmaine Beers adds that repentance happens, but the challenge is believing in God's forgiveness for so much sin—or that there's a God who even cares. "You don't know what it is to have a pure, righteous, upright, holy life when all you've known is sad and ugly," she says. "I've led people to Christ by example and love—but it took two years before they felt it might be real, not another lie of the world or another letdown."

Love brought Beers back to the bridge 10 years ago, after Jimmy Dorrell preached the funeral of her sister-in-law, Dixie. A crack- and heroin-addicted prostitute, Dixie was found in a weedy field one freezing morning. She had overdosed. Someone had dumped her body in the field and stolen her shoes. She was buried in a pauper's grave.

Months before her death, Dixie had told Beers she had felt welcome at CUB and had been treated kindly. Dixie's death hit Dorrell hard.

"Just another prostitute gone, but Jimmy loved her—you could tell he cared," says Beers, herself a former methamphetamine addict.

An eighth-grade dropout who began smoking pot at 12 and dropping LSD at 13, Beers drifted in and out of homelessness much of her life. After Dixie's funeral, Beers's husband, Randy, nagged her to return with him to the bridge. Like most newcomers to CUB, Beers hung to the back, quietly watching well behind the rows of chairs. If this is real, show me, she prayed.

God answered. "I found out there's a loving, forgiving God out there who wants to love me despite me," Beers says. "Jesus loves me, no matter what."

Her first job was running Mission Waco's thrift store. Now she's office manager of the Mission Waco social services center, which provides emergency aid to the needy.

Uncooperative Donkeys

Just after 10:30, 200 people are at the bridge. Waco's hungry poor queue at the back for the day's meal, this one sponsored by local Methodists. Dorrell's wife, Janet, is strumming an acoustic guitar as she begins a musical warmup on the trailer-stage. Joining her is CUB's multiracial worship team on instruments that include bongos, a washboard and an unplugged electric guitar played by a man with mental retardation.

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As the chairs fill, latecomers know to grab a chair from the trailer and take care to place it away from a bridge column where pigeon droppings may plop onto worshipers below.

Every Sunday is different. One focuses on missions. Another celebrates the church's anniversary with a march for the homeless. There's biker Sunday, recovery Sunday, and Palm Sunday, when a homeless guy on a donkey enters the church, palm fronds strewn in his path over the dirt, rocks, and cigarette butts.

One year the donkey wouldn't budge, so a biker put the Christ figure in his Harley's sidecar and drove him in. Easter includes a churchwide foot-washing. Every year the church holds a sleep-in under the bridge; the idea is to help those with homes to grasp the plight of the homeless.

Randall Warlick, 43, a redhaired, bushy-bearded electrician, owns a comfortable house on 14 acres outside Waco. He is a longtime Christian who's never done drugs, never had a brush with the law, and never been homeless. For years he only went to church for weddings and funerals. He grew disillusioned by the institutional church for what he calls its lack of passion for mission to those outside its walls.

Three years ago, when Warlick was hired to wire a Mission Waco building, Dorrell invited him to CUB's Easter service. The foot-washing almost scared him away. Now he and his family are among those who count CUB as their church home.

Asked why, Warlick says, "I feel like I belong here. God has blessed me with lots of things. I feel like I can help out." He shares much in common with the destitute who gather at the bridge: "Struggles. Love for God. Knowing I'm a sinner."

Rewards abound, he says. "I see people really down in their hearts get filled with the Spirit. It does me a world of good."

Kenneth Kucker and others hand out one-page lyric sheets. Among the songs is "I Love This Church," with lyrics modified from Toby Keith's country music hit about a bar:

We got winners, we got losers, chain smokers and boozers,
And we got yuppies, we got bikers, we got thirsty hitchhikers
And the girls next door dress up like movie stars,
Hmmm, I love this church.
I've seen short skirts, we got high-techs, blue-collar boys and rednecks
And we got lovers, lots of lookers, I've even seen dancin' girls and hookers
And we like to worship where the pigeons perch,
Hmmm, I love this church.
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CUB is not a celebration of sin but an acceptance of people where they are. People aren't expected to clean up their acts before they come to church. The leadership knows sanctification takes time. Charmaine Beers, for example, kept taking drugs for at least six months after she committed her life to Christ. She didn't marry her live-in boyfriend for more than two years after that.

Many people at the bridge feel they're so unworthy that God couldn't want them. "The church typically reminds them of their sinfulness," Dorrell says. "Our responsibility is to love them. The Holy Spirit's work is to convict them. All come, feel love, and draw closer to God. They have spiritual gifts, personal value, and worth."

Such is Dorrell's approach to salvation, but that does not stop him from striving to stretch converts into disciples.

"Discipleship is a church responsibility," he says. "We desperately believe in accountability and personal growth. But a lot of our people aren't Christians, and they think you have to be a certain way before Jesus wants you. After you surrender, there's the incredible sense of wanting to follow this loving God, and willingness to be taught and challenged by the church to grow in Christ."

Dorrell doesn't give altar calls, but church leaders are always up front for those wanting to know more about a personal relationship with Christ. Sometimes Dorrell ends the service by calling all to join hands.

At the back is the biker who shared Christ with Conrad Lahr his first morning under the bridge. The biker's Harley is parked along the end of chair rows. The Harley's trailer carries a 10-foot wooden cross that bears this inscription: THERE'S ROOM AT THE CROSS FOR YOU.

Deann Alford is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas.

Related Elsewhere:

Church Under the Bridge has a modest web site.

More information about Jimmy Dorrell is available from Baylor's web site.

The Waco Tribune-Herald has several articles about the church:

3/23/04 Plan commission to hear comments on placing homeless shelter downtown | Local residents are expected to show up in large numbers tonight for a public hearing about sections of the city's code of ordinances that address where group homes can be located. (March 22, 2004)
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3/23/04 Community involvement promoted for college students | Local college students, faculty, and nonprofit groups discussed some essential needs of the community Monday — and how college students can help address them. (March 22, 2004)
City code leaves Mission Waco project out in cold | Mission Waco's proposed center for homeless men is homeless itself after executive director Jimmy Dorrell got word this week his plan to purchase the historic Central Presbyterian Church has been thwarted by a city ordinance. (March 3, 2004)
'Urban consultation' seeks collaboration by churches, other Christian groups | The Second Waco Urban Church Consultation starts today and continues Saturday at Mighty Wind Worship Center in downtown Waco. Members of more than 30 local churches and Christian organizations are gathering to collaborate on such issues as health care, substance abuse, poverty and domestic violence. (Feb. 27, 2004)
Mission Waco hopes to buy downtown church for homeless shelter | A shelter aimed at saving homeless men from dying on the streets could be open by fall, a milestone social justice advocates say will help fill a longtime void in the network of services available to the area's homeless. (Feb. 22, 2004)
Mission Waco walk aims to help the homeless | Mission Waco's annual "Walk for the Homeless" will leave at 9 a.m. Sunday from Interstate 35 and South Fourth Street underpass. The 1.4 mile educational/prayer walk teaches about the realities of homelessness and poverty in Waco and around the world, said the Rev. Jimmy Dorrell, executive director of Mission Waco and pastor of Church Under the Bridge. (Sept. 20, 2003)

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