A culture shock awaits Church Under the Bridge, where hundreds of Waco’s marginalized gather on Sundays to worship and enjoy a free meal, enduring the cacophony of sirens and roaring engines overhead.
The congregation is moving next year to Magnolia Market at the Silos, the Xanadu of local tourist attractions created by “Fixer Upper” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines. The Gaineses invited the church to call the Silos home on Sundays during the three-to-five-year effort to widen Interstate 35, a project that will displace the church when it starts in March.
Jimmy Dorrell, who shepherds the flock that gathers beneath the underpass at South Fourth and Fifth streets and I-35, gratefully accepted the invitation. He will make an announcement during services Sunday, on the church’s 26th anniversary.
“It was clearly a surprise. I didn’t see it coming at all,” said Dorrell, talking between chores while preparing for Sunday’s “Walk for the Homeless,” sponsored by Mission Waco/Mission World, another ministry Jimmy and Janet Dorrell founded. “I know some of the people over at Magnolia. Way back, before she was a star on TV, Joanna Gaines would model in our style show, which was a fundraiser.”
He added that the Gaineses donated $51,000 to Mission Waco’s nonprofit grocery store, Jubilee Market, through an auction of items from the old Elite Cafe, which is now Magnolia Table.
Dorrell recently visited the Silos to discuss the outline of an agreement, leaving impressed with the graciousness of Magnolia representatives. He also envisioned the setting’s tranquility on a Sunday morning, away from pigeon droppings, yapping dogs and the threat of interstate traffic.
“It was amazingly quiet, with no 18-wheelers above,” he said with a laugh.
The voice on the other end of the line was that of Chip Gaines, part of Waco’s dynamic duo that has made Magnolia and “Fixer Upper” household names.
Chip Gaines, speaking by phone, recalls the fledgling ministry already making waves when he was attending nearby Baylor University, where he graduated in 1998. Students began to drift over from campus on Sunday mornings, joining the homeless in worship.
“I admired Jimmy (Dorrell) from afar,” said Gaines. “I read about his plans for the grocery store, and wondered if we could parlay the auction into something that would benefit the cause. Then about a month ago, I read about how the I-35 project would impact his church. I was sitting in my office one day, day-dreaming, thinking about making a commitment, and we reached out to Jimmy. He came over to the Silos, and we agreed it would make a great fit geographically. We said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and shook hands on it.”
Gaines said he considered the risks involved in allowing hundreds of people to gather on the Magnolia lawn on Sunday mornings.
“But if Jimmy Dorrell is involved, I have no reservations whatsoever,” he said. “I trust him because he does what he says he’s going to do.”
Logistical questions relating to parking and security at the Silos remain to be resolved before the Texas Department of Transportation launches its $300 million project to rebuild I-35 and widen it to four lanes in each direction between North Loop 340 and South 12th Street. TxDOT will award a contract in December, and dust will begin to fly the following spring, spokeswoman Jodi Wheatley said.
Dorrell recently joked with his congregation that TxDOT “is remodeling our place at no charge,” and praised the “beautification project.” The widened overpass will in fact be beautified with decorative metal globe lights that will cast shadows on the sidewalks at night as part of a $2.1 million project the Waco City Council agreed to fund this week to beautify four underpasses.
Dorrell said he has entered into a one-year agreement with Magnolia to use the Silos at no charge, after which the parties will revisit the arrangement. Ultimately the church will return to its home under the bridge, he said.
Megan Henderson, executive director of City Center Waco, which advocates for downtown improvements, applauded the news.
“It’s both surprising and not surprising at the same time,” she said. “It may not be what anyone was anticipating, but it is consistent with the Gaineses’ ethic of sincere hospitality. I have been in situations when either Chip or Joanna has quietly expressed interest in being helpful, sometimes in small, out-of-the-way ways. I think they have a desire to share their talent for hospitality with Church Under the Bridge, and it’s a great gift.”
Practically speaking, said Henderson, holding services at the Silos “makes sense from an access standpoint.” She said businesses and service providers busy during the week become less active on Sundays, and the Magnolia complex is closed that day.
“There should not be the kind of parking pressure seen Monday through Friday,” said Henderson. “I can personally testify that a lot of people with vehicles do attend Church Under the Bridge, and parking will be a concern, but there should be plenty available on Sunday mornings.”
Waco City Councilman Dillon Meek, whose district includes the Mission Waco/Mission World complex in North Waco, said he was thrilled that Magnolia Market and Church Under the Bridge had a meeting of the minds.
“This is extremely generous and kind of Magnolia, consistent with their hearts for the community,” he said by phone. “Church Under the Bridge is a powerful ministry that reaches a lot of people near and dear to the heart of God. This is the perfect location for it to flourish during the Interstate 35 project.”
Dorrell said he is well aware Magnolia Market at the Silos has become a tourist magnet, attracting 30,000 people weekly from every corner of the country. It is closed Sundays, but fans still flock there to take photos.
“If we have extra people show up, for whatever reason, that will be a byproduct we love,” Dorrell said. “But we’re there for the people who don’t feel welcome. Another 20 to 25 percent attend because there is something there for them. Some are just not in church. We hope these groups continue to attend. But if the poor aren’t there, we would have made a bad mistake.”
Churches from around the state volunteer to serve meals before Sunday services, and Dorrell does not see that changing. He will instruct attendees not to ask visitors for money. Smoking will be limited to the parking lots.
“We don’t mind smokers, but we want them to be considerate of others,” said Dorrell. “Some people bring their pets. Homeless guys, for example, haul dogs around in their buggies. Quite a few bring them just because they can, but there is nothing more distracting than two dogs barking at each other.”
Church Under the Bridge maintains an annual budget of $150,000, said Dorrell, whose salary is paid by Mission Waco/Mission World, not Church Under the Bridge.
“Our offerings run $1,200 to $3,000 a week,” he said. “If we receive more after moving to the Silos, it just means we will have more to give away. We donate to nonprofits, support programs in Haiti, Mexico and India, financially support people taking mission trips. It all goes to benefit the poor.”