Jimmy Dorrell is the kind of Texas pastor who slips into preaching mode within the first five minutes of conversation, who has to tell two stories before finishing the first. His jokes can skip right past you if you’re not paying attention. On Palm Sunday, the fast-talking 70-year-old stood in the middle of Waco’s Webster Avenue, near Baylor University, wearing a light-blue face mask and a black hoodie, surrounded at six-foot intervals by homeless men and women waving palm fronds. Beside the street’s double yellow lines, a tattooed Jesus washed the feet of one of the men, while volunteers in masks and gloves waited on the sidewalk to put food from a slow cooker onto Styrofoam trays.
This is what church looks like during a pandemic: distanced, clouded by the threat of disease, but stubbornly persistent. Dorrell, whose congregation started meeting under a bridge close to I-35 nearly 30 years ago, is sad that his people can’t meet the way they used to on Sundays, that the crews who cook for the homeless are limited to 10 to 15 people at a time. As weird as this time is, though, remaining faithful through a period of fear and illness is exactly what faith is about, he says. “Protestants, we don’t do very well when it comes to dealing with the suffering of Christ,” he told me. Despite the many parts of the Bible that depict intense pain, “we middle-class Christians don’t like those passages, because we don’t want to suffer. We just want the good stuff.”
Easter weekend is usually a celebratory and social time of year, with pastel outfits and egg hunts and elaborate family brunches. The story it marks is one of joy for Christians: Jesus’s resurrection, offering the fulfillment of a promise and the hope of human salvation. This year, most people will spend the holiday alone, maybe tuning in to an online worship service or communicating with family members over Zoom. Many Christians will carry sorrow and worry, wondering about the health of their elderly neighbors or friends in big cities. But perhaps there’s theological insight to be gleaned from a painful Easter. “Most of us have taken the shallow way—we want to have Jesus as savior and get to heaven. They’re missing the Gospel,” Dorrell said. “It’s entering the pain, getting off of my place of safety and security, moving in among the poor, working among the broken, suffering with people.” In a time when many Americans are mourning their usual life, this may be a season of clarity about what it means to be a person of faith.
At the end of March, as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths was sharply rising, President Donald Trump declared that he wanted “the country opened up” by Easter. When a reporter asked why he had selected that date, he replied, “I just thought it was a beautiful time.” Public-health officials were quick to caution that lifting restrictions so soon would be dangerous, and the president soon backed off his statements. But his comments illustrate how unthinkable this moment is: Most of the country will be shut down through one of the biggest Christian holidays of the year. It’s hard for anyone not to yearn for a different reality.
While Dorrell would never wish a pandemic on the world, in a certain sense he seems to relish the normal ways of religious life getting turned upside down. “I grew up in that religious culture where we all had to have new clothes, and we all had to sit in the family row together” on Easter, he said. This is “the superficiality of most of the Christian Church in America: It’s pretty. We have a big building and a gorgeous place with choir robes and stuff.” Dorrell, who refers to himself as “a recovering Baptist,” describes his congregation, the Church Under the Bridge, as nondenominational in every sense of the word: middle-class and poor; black, white, and brown; ex-offenders and the homeless. “I’ve got Lutherans and Episcopalians,” he said, “and I’ve got wild-eyed charismatics.”
In recent months, the group has been meeting in Waco’s Silos—the headquarters of the home-decor empire run by Chip and Joanna Gaines—while the I-35 bridge is under construction. The pandemic has derailed its typical 300-person worship services, however. Now each week consists of cooking burgers for the homeless, calling and visiting congregants who live alone or don’t have internet access, and trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy during this unusual Lent. A traditional Palm Sunday celebration for the Church Under the Bridge involves Jesus riding in on a motorcycle—it’s a long story involving an intransigent donkey—and it kept that up this year, with a guy on a hog riding around a block away from its socially distanced gathering.
Dorrell delights in this kind of weirdness, which underscores how different his community is from the typical American church. Just as Dorrell is critical of the version of Christianity that hawks salvation at no cost, he’s skeptical of pastors who have refused to cancel church services during the pandemic. “I think a lot of times, it’s egocentric leadership that has this pulpit that says, ‘God will conquer everything. We’ll just get together, and we’ll show them that we’re not going to get sick,’” he said. “They really don’t love their people as much as they act like they do on the pulpit.”
The overwhelming majority of churches in America have shut down in accordance with government guidelines, with many putting their services online and guiding people on rites, such as taking Communion, at home. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, for example, will live-stream its 10 a.m. Easter Sunday Mass. Lakewood Church in Houston will feature remote performances and comments from Mariah Carey, Kanye West, and Tyler Perry. These styles are very different from Dorrell’s, but each is a way of working around the quarantine to keep church going. “How can we break from the single-mindedness of ‘We all can’t get together in one big room’?” he said. “We can figure out ways to follow the guidelines and not be stupid.”
Even still, he’s disappointed that his congregation won’t be able to celebrate Easter the way it normally does. In other years, his members all drive out to a camp about 40 minutes from Waco, where they worship outside. They perform baptisms in a river, just as the Bible describes Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan. They eat together and pray together. It’s this joy in gathering, similarly cherished by Jews at Passover and Muslims during Ramadan, that will be missing for so many Americans this spring.
And there will be other losses. Dorrell said his congregants are already starting to feel the effects of the pandemic and the resulting economic shutdown: a job that wasn’t great to begin with disappearing, bills piling up, families unsure of whether they can stay in their home. It’s one thing to read the Bible with a theoretical understanding of tremendous loss. It’s another to do so while living through it. “The theology of suffering is: God, if you’ve got to make me walk through those tough times for me to be closer to you and more faithful in my walk, I’m willing to let you do that,” Dorrell said. This may be an Easter of solitude. But Easter by the river will return again. “We’ll go back out,” Dorrell said, “and have baptism there when this thing cleans out.”