“Sunday mornings can be lonely,” Michael Featherstone, street ministry coordinator for Mission Possible, said to me recently when I attended a service at Church Under the Bridge.
I got to thinking, he was right. Sunday mornings can be lonely if you are single, maybe homeless, don’t have a family, or a place to worship where you feel welcome.
Church Under the Bridge at Seventh Street and Interstate 35, permitted by the Texas Department of Transportation to use this space, holds a community gathering of praise and worship for anyone and everyone each Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon. Mission Possible coordinates the program and various Austin churches step up to serve on a schedule. The folding chairs and round tables randomly placed are provided by Mission Possible, but by rotation, individual churches do the rest. They brings their bands, their preachers, coffee and food. Some people sort of listen, some sing along with the band, and some watch Angela, a faith-filled woman from Vietnam, gracefully fly flags of many colors to accompany the flow of music.
Not everyone attending Church Under the Bridge is homeless; however, many are. They are faces you might see at intersections with cardboard signs, “Homeless please help,” “No home, no food.” Or you may just see them crossing streets with heavy backpacks or plastic bags, totting their home on their back.
On my visit to Church Under the Bridge, several things grab my attention. The smell of urine wafts up in waves from the wet asphalt. There are bicycles, wheelchairs, suitcases on wheels, canes, walkers, sleeping bags, cardboard mattresses, dogs on leashes, and an occasional skateboard. A glimpse of Austin’s authenticity makes me grin — a man joyfully riding a turquoise bike with a pink guitar on the back to the gathering.
The majority of attendees seem to be young or middle-age men, although there are old women, too, like Jessie Mae and me. She at 81, dressed in a striking floral jacket, sits in her walker seat enjoying the community feel. There are a few groupings of two or three people, but most sit alone in a folding chair, on the curb or on the concrete bumpers. A fair number of folks doze on the bare blacktop, on cardboard or on a blanket.
One young woman sleeps in a nest of blankets during the service with flies buzzing over her head. When the preaching stops, she wakes up, scoots out of her comforter, wraps a throw-size blanket around her naked body, and heads to the coffee station under the tent.
In other corners of the twin lots, there is action. A team of barbers give free haircuts. Two men call out sizes of pants, “32, 38, 42” and throw pants to a person raising his hand. Surprisingly, despite the good-sized crowd around this gifting center, there is order — and gratitude. In other sections, tables offer burritos, books, personal products, water, and washcloths. It seemed these good-hearted church hosts think of everything.
Trash litters the lot — paper plates, a shoe, fast-food wrappers, Styrofoam cups, cardboard, plastic bags, a bandage, an umbrella and cigarettes. A humble volunteer, head down, quietly picks up debris.
Featherstone, a wise and holy man once homeless, and my special angel when I spent 72 hours living on the streets years ago, spoke from experience when he said — “Sunday morning can be lonely.” His goal and the goal of Mission Possible is to welcome all people to Church Under the Bridge, where for two hours, everyone is invited to worship one God, and believe they belong somewhere, to someone.
Walking through the crowd and noting the number of people sitting alone or away from the center stage, I wonder. It this unique church really a church? There are no rituals, no pews, no vestments. Reconsidering this for a moment, I pause … perhaps our first faith gatherings looked like this, a bit of a spectacle with animals, food and crowds — a smattering of the curious, the believers, the skeptics and the merely lonely, all hoping to be fed — food and more.
And I remember: “Where there are two or three gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” — Matthew 18:20.
Judy Knotts is a parishioner of St. John Neumann Catholic Church, and former head of St. Gabriel's Catholic School and St. Michael's Catholic Academy. Her newest book, "You Are My Brother," is a collection of past American-Statesman faith columns.