Bridging the Divide

Nearly every large city in Texas has a Church Under the Bridge. My Sundays at the one in Austin led me to a tattooed ex-biker, an unorthodox missionary, and a new understanding of homelessness.

by Lea Konczal

Leroy Pryor

Leroy Pryor, formerly homeless, enjoys his weekly mornings at Church Under the Bridge.

They meet every Sunday beneath the whale’s ribcage. The ribs jut out from just below Interstate Highway 35, above the giant parking lot between 7th and 8th Streets. Part art installation and part pedestrian lighting system, the bones are a series of long curved metal rods whose blue lights illuminate the parking lot at night. The highway perches atop them like the spinal cord of some mythic leviathan.

If the highway above is a whale, the mass of people below is almost big enough to be a sea. There are about 300 people under the bridge this Sunday morning—men and women, black and white, young and old. For some, it is hard to determine their age or even their color. Most of the people in the crowd are homeless. The street is not kind to hair or skin.

A white tent in the center of the parking lot covers a series of tables, behind which fresh-faced volunteers with blue latex gloves dole out doughnuts and bananas and coffee. The line for food snakes across the parking lot, all the way past the sunny area where volunteers are setting up tables and musical instruments for a worship service.

It’s a typical Sunday at Church Under the Bridge.

The weekly worship service, founded in 1993, is a Christian outreach initiative operated by a nonprofit called Mission Possible Austin. The concept of a church service under a bridge, which began in Waco in 1992, is dedicated to the idea of providing a place for the homeless to worship. Austin’s Church Under the Bridge does this, serving up breakfast, singing and a sermon every Sunday. But the church service itself is only the beginning of the mission. In a way that the guitars and doughnuts do not at first sight reveal, Church Under the Bridge extends far beyond the leviathan’s ribcage.

Red and Roses

When I first cross under the whalebones into the cool darkness beneath the bridge, I feel as if I am entering the landscape of a twisted county fair. The food tent is the main attraction, where volunteers are handing out garish battle-scarred doughnuts, the Technicolor icing melting in the heat like makeup from a circus clown’s face. Each Sunday, one of 15-20 partnering churches sends breakfast and manpower to the bridge. Mission Possible Austin provides the pastor and a van full of setup equipment. The partnering church provides the rest: food, volunteers and a music worship team. Twice a month, the designated host church also serves lunch.

When I pull my eyes away from the crowded food tent, I notice a few other stations scattered around the shady expanse of concrete. A little ways off there is a prayer booth, with volunteers standing ready to pray for the needs of anyone who asks.

A trail of spilled popcorn leads me to another booth with a plethora of free books and pamphlets: Bibles and Christian devotionals in both English and Spanish, all of them donated. The large print King James Version is most popular among the street people, the volunteer behind the table informs me.

As I stand talking with her, a woman with flaming hair and a leather face—I later learn that her street name is Red—thrusts herself between us.

“My friend passed away,” she tells the volunteer accusingly, in a slurred voice that seems brewed more by grief than alcohol. “My friend that we prayed for last week.”

The volunteer looks uncomfortable.

The distraught redhead continues full force: How can these Christians expect her to believe in a God who lets these things happen? The volunteer and another lady try to comfort her, but Red will not hear of it and storms away.

In the wake of her abrupt departure, my eye settles instead on Leroy Pryor, easily the most colorful person in the belly of the whale. In a full camouflage uniform reminiscent of his Vietnam days, complete with dog tags, he lies on a piece of cardboard listening to battered headphones and holding a bouquet of fake roses. When I ask what the flowers are for, he dons an impish grin and jabs a finger at the guy sitting behind him. He introduces the man as his wife Sergio, saying Sergio gave him the flowers as a wedding present.

Sergio grins and winks at me, berating Leroy for his jokes. (Leroy admits that a little girl actually gave him the flowers this morning as he was making his way to Church Under the Bridge.) When I ask how long the two men have known each other, one replies “quite a while” and the other simply says “forever”.

Leroy doesn’t live on the street—at least not anymore. Displaced from Baton Rouge by Hurricane Katrina, he eventually ended up with an apartment in Austin, courtesy of Section 8, a joint program between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides veterans with affordable living space. He doesn’t have a job. He doesn’t think he needs one.

As I ask Leroy about his story, he and Sergio open up, flattered at the attention. Soon they are both smiling and asking me about my own life. The concrete rafters of the bridge seem to disappear, as if we are three friends chatting in a coffee shop.

This sense of community, Sergio tells me, is the reason he comes to Church Under the Bridge. He eats the food, and listens to the music and the sermons, but the best part of each Sunday is getting to see his friends. This is the one morning a week they can leave their isolated lives on different corners and under different overpasses, coming together for a fellowship difficult to find on the streets.

When I stand up to leave, Sergio and Leroy shower me with praise for coming to talk to them. I suspect that like them, many people under the bridge need an ear more than they need food or clothing. Sergio gestures around at the throng of people, some of whom throw occasional excited glances at my camera.

“Here’s a tip,” he tells me conspiratorially. “All these people want to talk to you.”

Sparkplug

Sergio is right.

The biker waiting for food sees me taking pictures of the line. He catches my eye, smiling and beckoning me over. His God-given name is Travis Holloway, he tells me, but most people call him Sparkplug.

With a grizzled beard, a Harley tattoo on his head and a Confederate flag bandana around his neck, Travis would not look out of place at a roughneck biker bar. That is just where he was, he says, two years ago on the night that started him on his path to prison.

In a Southern drawl, smooth and coarse like honey on fried chicken, he reminisces about life before that night. He had an RV and a truck and a Harley—the real thing, not the logo tattooed on the base of his skull. Surrounding the symbol is a dense tapestry of ink in the place of hair. Back when his head was un-patterned, Travis says he was fond of motor biking, gardening with his wife, and volunteering regularly at Church Under the Bridge.

He was also fond of drinking.

Travis tells it matter-of-factly. One night, he and his wife went out for some steak. After dinner, they moved on to a bar. Travis had been drinking hard all night, and when a stranger made a move on his wife, he grabbed a poker stick and beat the guy up. He got two years in prison, and after his wife moved away from Austin to nurse her ailing father, the RV park sold all of his possessions. He has been on the streets for three months now after his release, trying to get back on his feet. He hasn’t been drinking or doing drugs again, he tells me, because he’s looking for labor work. He can’t bring himself to beg, but the nights are getting colder and he isn’t sure how he’ll stay warm.

The online police and court records make no mention of Travis’s poker stick assault. He has been arrested several times for other reasons, however: driving while intoxicated, illegal possession of firearms, breaking parole. And other details of his story check out. While Mission Possible Austin doesn’t keep records of many of its volunteers, another longtime helper remembers him serving at Church Under the Bridge. And although Travis is homeless now, he clearly still places an importance on faith: he had been attending Onion Creek Baptist Church near his camp in Riverside before deciding to make the weekly trek back to the bridge.

As an individual familiar with Church Under the Bridge, Travis knows the weekly gathering draws all kinds of people—some religious, and some less so. But his overall view of the place is positive.

“A lot of people take advantage of the situation, sit out there and smoke dope and drink out here,” he admits. “But then again there’s a lot of people who really come down here and want to hear the word of God.”

Jesus Was Homeless Too

The word of God seems to enjoy a pretty good showing. After eating and mingling for a while, the bridge-goers gradually drift over to the tables arrayed in front of the music set. For the first half an hour or so, volunteers from this Sunday’s host church sing passionate praise songs. Although the sound dissipates quickly in the open air, some of the attendees sing along or raise their hands in worship. Others nap, read magazines, or talk amongst themselves. Throughout the long service, many of them come and go. During the last song, I see Travis sitting off to the side rolling a joint.

Sergio

Sergio listens to the morning’s sermon with a smile.

When the music ends, Brother Mike Featherstone takes center stage. In a departure from the dress code of even the most casual brick-and-mortar church, he is wearing a purple baseball cap, khaki shorts, and an orange Longhorn T-shirt emblazoned with a football slogan. He hands the microphone to Sam, a homeless man in the audience, who gets up to read today’s Bible passage—Chapter 7 from the Gospel of John. As Sam finishes, Brother Mike returns to deliver the message as the scent of Travis’s weed wafts over the scene.

Mike’s sermon, a highly detailed blueprint on how to live a Christ-driven life, touches on issues relevant to the congregation.

“Jesus lived as a homeless person,” he says, citing Matthew 8:20 in which Jesus says the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Mike tells the congregation that homelessness is sometimes a blessing, because fewer worldly distractions can lead to more communion with God.

Mike’s words are not born of an idealized view of the street life. He himself was homeless for two years, but cleaned up his life, got off the streets and now holds a leadership role at Mission Possible Austin. He even has his own business card, which reads “Street Ministry Liaison”.

For most homeless people, however, becoming a Christian is not a golden ticket off the streets. The people who congregate under the bridge each Sunday suffer from a variety of demons—drugs, alcoholism, mental illness, broken relationships—that are not easily banished. Personal choices and differing degrees of willpower also play a role in determining how far an individual ultimately transcends his or her circumstances. Many people who start out in a bad situation improve dramatically, even if they don’t end up living under a roof.

As the service is ending, a well-dressed woman comes and sits next to me at the front. Thankfully, the scent of her perfume drowns out the smell of marijuana. When she catches Brother Mike’s eye, he immediately brings her up to make an announcement: free haircuts and hair washing are here again! A man sitting behind me, whose curly head is about one-third face and two-thirds hair, starts to applaud.

It is the first indicator that Church Under the Bridge is much more than just church under a bridge.

Spam, Glasses and Haircuts

The bringer of haircuts is named Lisa Noel. A hairdresser for over 30 years, she has been offering her services every fourth Sunday at Church Under the Bridge for about three years. Shuttles take people to the Mission Possible Austin community center where they can have their hair washed or cut. Lisa and her husband also collect donations of combs, small towels, and other toiletries to give to the recipients. The enterprise is a family affair—for one Memorial Day, the Noels went beyond hair services when Lisa’s Marine son washed the feet of all the homeless veterans. Many of the vets, Lisa tells me, were moved to tears.

It is moments like these, she says, that make Church Under the Bridge special. In her view, Church Under the Bridge is all about people helping people in the name of Christ.

Jim McNabb would no doubt agree. A retired ophthalmologist, he brings a volunteer staff every Sunday to fit people with free eyeglasses underneath the bridge. To test their vision, Jim and his helpers ask bridge-goers to read a card with John 3:16 printed on it, measuring how far away they need to hold it from their eyes. After an eye tester picks out the correct pair of glasses from a table, each fitting session ends with the volunteer praying over the recipient.

I ask Jim if he sees people using their glasses consistently. Yes, he confirms—while there are some individuals who come back week after week for more, there are also many who receive glasses once and then wear them every Sunday.

Church Under the Bridge, however, doesn’t stop with haircuts and eye care. Every fourth Sunday, Rita Auerbach pulls up under the interstate with a bright yellow trailer and a cadre of yellow-shirted volunteers. Bags of Grace, an organization Rita founded that gives bags full of clothing, blankets, food and toiletries to the homeless, comes every Sunday to minister to those beneath the bridge. Rita’s mission, inspired by Matthew 25:35-40 (“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink”), is to provide an example of Christ-like living by addressing the homeless people’s physical needs. Yet as I quickly learn, tangible help is only the tip of the iceberg.

As I speak with Rita, our conversation is suddenly interrupted when the redheaded woman from earlier materializes beside us, clutching one of the bags of grace.

“Lita!” Rita greets her joyfully. Red’s real name is Lita Johnson, and her earlier distress has vanished from her face.

“This is my sister,” she announces proudly, pointing to Rita, and from the identical looks of happiness on the faces of the two women, at first I almost believe her. They are clearly old friends. I ask Lita if I can take her picture, and she answers with a swift and petulant “No!” Rita gives her a stern look, and the next second the two women have their arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling and laughing and mugging for the camera.

Lita explains that she didn’t want me to take her picture because she doesn’t think she’s the best person to represent Church Under the Bridge. She’s finding it hard to believe in Jesus right now. I mention that I saw her earlier, and she immediately rags on the volunteers she talked to, saying they weren’t really listening. But the yellow shirts are different, she tells me, referring to the Bags of Grace volunteers. As she speaks, she takes a small can of spam from her bag and pops it open. The bag of grace dangles from one arm as she extracts a pink tube from the can, stuffing what looks like an oily rubber eraser into her mouth. As she noisily grinds up the cat-food-colored mash, she chats with the yellow shirts about her life. No mention of her friend’s death, no theological platitudes offered as consolation. Just a woman speaking and her friends listening.

When Lita finally says goodbye, her uneven speech is more tempered.

“You know what, I feel better now,” she says simply, smiling as she shoulders her bag of grace and heads back to the streets.

For Rita Auerbach, helping people like her sister Lita has not always come easy. The daughter of an abusive alcoholic, she once condemned homeless people as alcoholics or drug addicts who had ruined their lives and the lives of their families. She credits Jesus, however, for her transformation.

“He took me from wanting to run over people on the street to loving them like Christ does.”

As we speak, Travis drifts over, noticeably mellow from the marijuana. Unprompted, he begins quietly helping the yellow shirts pack up their trailer. Rita joins them, telling me that although she only met Travis today, she feels a connection with him because his father was also an alcoholic. Side by side, the homeless man and his former denouncer load leftover supplies into the trailer. When Travis leaves, he is clutching a bag of grace and has a blanket from Rita rolled up under his arm.

Rita and Travis

Rita Auerbach binds an injury on Travis Holloway’s leg. After talking with him and binding his wound, she put her arm around his shoulder and prayed over him.

Mission Possible Austin

The people who attend Church Under the Bridge are not a homogenous body of the homeless: some have homes, some do not. Some beg for money, some do not. Some have mental illnesses, some suffer from alcohol or drug abuse, and some are clean. Some are chronically homeless, some are on and off the street, and for a few, homelessness truly is a temporary phenomenon. Most of them do not assign homelessness the same stigma as those who have always had a roof over their heads. For many, it is just another one of life’s difficulties—a result of problems rather than a cause.

Official statistics on the exact problems homeless people face are difficult to obtain. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development releases an Annual Homeless Assessment Report, but it contains little more than an estimate of the number of people on the streets. More helpful would be numbers on the ailments that homeless people are widely assumed to suffer: mental illness, drug problems and alcohol abuse. The National Coalition for the Homeless, a large advocacy organization, estimates that 20-25% of the adult homeless population suffers from severe mental illness. Other estimates are as high as 50%, depending on how mental illnesses are classified. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness estimates that nearly half of all homeless people also suffer from some form of substance abuse.

Amidst such wide-ranging difficulties, how much can Church Under the Bridge hope to change the lives of the people it serves? If Christianity is really so transformational, as most missionaries claim, then why hasn’t it gotten more homeless believers off the streets?

To search for answers, I visit the headquarters of Mission Possible Austin, the organization behind Church Under the Bridge. Founded in 1992 by Tim Pinson, a former youth minister and church elder, MP Austin’s 15-20 ministries are aimed at dealing with three levels of underserved communities: children, the homeless, and the elderly. Programs range from summer camps to art therapy to grocery delivery for the elderly. It all started, however, with a church under a bridge.

Tim got the idea for a homeless ministry after befriending Jimmy Dorrell, the founder of an inner-city ministry in Waco. Dorrell had started his own Church Under the Bridge in 1992, just as Mission Possible Austin was beginning as a children’s ministry in the Austin housing projects. After seeing Dorrell’s work, however, Tim started thinking about extending his outreach to the homeless. Then one day in 1993, he got a call from Dorrell: several young men from Baylor wanted to visit Austin, and Dorrell wanted them to get out of their comfort zones. Would Tim take them in for the weekend?

Tim said yes. As soon as the young men arrived, he bused them downtown and announced that they were all going to be homeless for the weekend. Tim and his shocked charges spent the next three days living on the streets, talking with the homeless and asking them what their greatest need was. The answer was surprising: many of the street people complained that they had no place to worship because of the way they looked and smelled. That Sunday, Tim and the young men hosted a church service under the bridge by Town Lake. They were expecting only five or ten people, but somewhere between 20 and 40 showed up. Tim preached a sermon, they made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and Church Under the Bridge was born.

Tim Pinson

Tim Pinson smiles from the balcony of Mission Possible Austin’s office on 12th and Chicon. He chose to locate in one of Austin’s worst neighborhoods in order to make the greatest impact on underserved communities.

21 years later, the other missions that have grown up around Church Under the Bridge are still dedicated to helping impoverished communities in Austin. Although Tim’s stated goal is to align people with their Creator, he rejects the mentality of just giving a homeless person a Bible and a good-luck prayer.

“A lot of times you say, ‘Well, they just really need to hear the Gospel message’. Well, they don’t. Most of those guys know the Gospel message.” The problem, Tim says, is that “they’ve not seen a tangible demonstration of that. How is the Gospel actually lived out?”

This is the central theme of Mission Possible Austin—not preaching from a faraway pulpit, but setting an example through initiatives that foster community. Social facilitation, not just social programs. The purpose of Church Under the Bridge, Tim says, “is not necessarily to create a church service, but to create a venue whereby people can come together and get connected. And in those connections, life-on-life transformation takes place.”

Surprisingly, some of the most radical transformations occur in those who sign up to do the transforming.

“We’re out to change someone else,” Tim says of his staff and volunteers, “but usually the first person that changes is us”.

And in Tim’s view, the most dramatic alterations happen to people who start with the wrong perspective. Those who judge the homeless harshly—something Tim did for many years—are those with the most to gain from coming down to the bridge.

Tim does not try to paint the homeless as saints, however. He acknowledges that some of the people on the streets can be “pretty diabolical”, and many are unsafe to be around. There are also freeloaders, people who take advantage of Mission Possible’s services and repay evil for good. But every case is different, so the challenge Tim lays down is always the same:

“Come down, lay your perspective aside, and begin to know someone for who they are.”

It is a challenge he hopes will get churchgoers out of their pews and onto the streets.

“I believe that if we’re going to make a dent in poverty, we, as the body of Christ and as Christians, have to change on a fundamental level. We’ve got to be able to look at things differently than we’ve ever seen them before.

“We’re part of the problem,” Tim concludes, “whether we recognize it or not.”

Beyond the Bridge

On a balmy Friday morning, I find myself back at the corner of 12th and Chicon, the location of Mission Possible Austin’s headquarters and formerly one of the worst street corners in East Austin. Today Chicon is seeing better days. Grass spills over the sidewalk in several places, but taken with the gentrified cottages that line the road, the effect is charming rather than derelict. Graffiti and cheap-looking bars still line the intersection, but the looming white structure of the MP Austin community center is a dominant counterweight.

I have come here to find the end of what begins under the bridge. Church Under the Bridge is only a starting point for many of the street people; the flagship program where they are first introduced to Mission Possible Austin. Beyond the bridge, Mission Possible offers a variety of ministries for those homeless people who want to strengthen their connections with Christ and with each other. On Tuesday nights, the community center hosts a Bible study for the homeless. Every weekday morning, a café inside the center is open for breakfast and prayer. Various volunteers, either individual families or local organizations, also serve dinner nightly. And one evening a month, MP Austin hosts a birthday celebration complete with singing and cake.

The prayer café, lit by the morning sun streaming through open blinds on all the windows, is reminiscent of a small-town diner. Cheap but clean, red plastic booths line the walls below framed Bible verses. An assortment of small tables and chairs fills the space between the booths and the counter, where a scraggly man sits on a stool eating a pastry and reading a Bible. Brother Mike Featherstone is manning the counter today, taking coffee orders and helping the other volunteers serve doughnuts and bagels.

During the course of my visit, a jar of sugar on the counter is quickly emptied and has to be refilled. Many homeless people here and at the bridge like to take their sugar with coffee. Poor eating habits, Tim Pinson believes, are common among many street people, and sometimes even contribute to their temperamental outbursts. He is working to replace the doughnuts with healthier options.

For now, though, I find myself sitting opposite a woman who is just finishing off a tub of cream cheese. After a bit of chatting, she excuses herself to go wash up. The nice thing about the community center, she says, is that they let people shower here. She takes one every day.

Upon her departure, a friendly, expansive fellow named Will Buckner comes to take her seat. A godfather of sorts at Mission Possible Austin, Will has been involved with the ministry since its inception, and seems to know every volunteer and street person around. He is currently homeless after losing his job, but he doesn’t seem fazed. He has no home, no job, and no family, he says, but the community at MP Austin makes up for all that. He volunteers at the café every morning, talking with his street friends about life and sometimes about God. I am reminded of something Tim Pinson told me—a few homeless people choose to stay on the streets as a way of ministry. Suddenly, from Will’s clean appearance, natty polo shirt and genial words of wisdom, a thought strikes me: while he may be currently homeless, Will can hardly be categorized as just a “homeless person”.

Will Buckner

Will Buckner acts as a mentor to many who attend Church Under the Bridge.

The clock on the café’s north wall ticks lazily as people come and go. Will’s friend Rhody, a bulky man with the word “SINNER” tattooed on his head and more piercings than I can count, proudly tells us that he just got hired as a security guard for a horror film festival. This launches Will into a happy, rambling one-man discussion of his favorite horror flicks. At one point a volunteer stops by our booth to say hello, and the three men greet each other by name and start sharing the latest gossip from the street. The sun streams into the booth on this Friday morning, where three people are indoors and connected, instead out on the street and alone.

This community, this fellowship forged at the crossroads of 12th and Chicon, is truly where the seeds planted at Church Under the Bridge grow to fruition. This is the end of what begins beneath the whale’s ribcage.

Or is it? As I exit the café, I find myself passing the door to the clinic. MP Austin provides space and patients for two different medical clinics; a partnership with a dental facility is also in the works. In the hall by the clinic’s entrance, I notice a lone man sitting beside the doorway as if he is afraid to go inside. He has light brown skin and is wearing a black sports jacket, the same color as his eyes and hair. He stares at his feet and appears as if he is trying to blend into the wall. No one coming to and from the prayer café greets him. What illness is he here for? Is he homeless? What new perspective, as Tim Pinson might say, would he give me if I knew?

From the bridge to the clinic, from the streets to the prayer café, from Tim Pinson in his office to this quiet man waiting beside an open door, the work of Mission Possible Austin is never over. Church Under the Bridge is the beginning. The end—of poverty, love and human charity—is nowhere in sight.

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Sources

Section 8 housing:

MP Austin

2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report

National Coalition for the Homeless statistics

Human sources:

  • Lisa Noel: lisamariebearhugs@gmail.com
  • Rita Auerbach: rita@bagsofgrace.org
  • Tim Pinson: timsr@mpaustin.org
  • Mike Featherstone: mike@mpaustin.org

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