Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the May 2015 ORANGE Issue III.
The highway roars overhead, the concrete ceiling acting as a barrier between the fast-paced buzz of Austinites going about their day and the people below. Some are just looking for a shady spot to rest, and others are dressed up, excited to worship. A volunteer band plays loudly. This is no ordinary church service, but one thing is clear: anyone is welcome.
Story and Photos by Danielle Smith
With a firm handshake and a smile that hovers under a grey handlebar mustache, Mike Featherstone proudly introduces himself to me as the Street Liaison. The ballcap on his head reads, “Jesus is my BOSS,” and a silver chain with a large cross dangles from around his neck as he wipes down a table with a faded blue terry cloth. “The best Church Under the Bridge story is myself,” Featherstone says.
He had a job, a wife, two stepkids and a home, but he lost it all and became more severely dependent on alcohol than he already was. His pride prevented him from checking into a homeless shelter, and at a point he describes as “rock bottom,” Featherstone’s Catholic upbringing caused him to reach out to God. As a razor blade rested next to him, Featherstone asked God to give him a reason to live.
Soon after this moment, Featherstone found out about Church Under the Bridge.
In 1992, Mission Possible! Austin started with the mission to better this city. In 1993, Church Under the Bridge started as an extension of its community outreach, providing church service from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. every Sunday under Interstate 35 between 7th and 8th streets. With the help of more than 30 volunteers, an average of 200 people attend the service each week. Many think of Church Under the Bridge, which is also connected with a pregnancy resource center and a battery prevention center, as a “church for the homeless,” but Featherstone insists it is a place for anyone.
On a Sunday morning in 2005, Featherstone came to a Church Under the Bridge service for the first time. “It was like God was reaching his finger out and tapping me on the head, telling me, ‘This is for you,’” he says. In what he describes as a “born again experience,” Featherstone says he suddenly had a strong desire to share “God’s word” and serve the community.
That desire to serve did not go unrecognized by Beau Hamner, who has been the director of street ministry for Mission Possible! Austin for the last four years. “He was willing to do just about anything and wasn’t above any task,” Hamner says. “That impressed me.” The staff at Mission Possible! agreed that Featherstone was an important part of the organization, and they hired him full time. He says his favorite part of the job is the relationships he has made with people and the opportunity he has to share the word of God with them. “We see people’s lives change around here,” Featherstone says. “Mine certainly did.”
On this Sunday, an attendee named Sara is wearing a black band tee with the sleeves barely covering a tattoo, and thick black eyeliner around her eyes. Sara tells me that she comes to Church Under the Bridge because it provides some things that she really needs but doesn’t get from the Salvation Army, where she’s been living for the last two months. “I mostly just come for the free shit like shampoo, razors and deodorant,” she says. “But there’s also the social aspect where you can meet new people, which is cool.”
Church Under the Bridge has partnered with several other charities and churches around the area to provide necessary services to those attending. “It has become a spot where the homeless know they can go and get spiritual needs taken care of as well as physical needs,” Hamner says.
Missy McManus sets up a table with a sign reading “Free Prayer” with her husband Rob and her son Trevor. Every other Sunday, the church provides a meal, and on the fourth Sunday of every month, the church offers free haircuts. Those in need receive hygiene kits and zipper bags with canned food, water bottles and gum from Bags of Grace. “We want to show that we value people’s lives,” Featherstone says.
At the end of the service, Featherstone is bent over, black trash bag in hand as he cleans up. With a smile on his face, he hollers after me, thanking me for coming and reminding me to come again next week.