It had all the elements of a typical Christmas church service – singing, prayer, a children’s service and even a nursery. There was just one difference: It was under a bridge.
The Bridge Ministry, founded in 2007 by Pastor Roger Gardner and his wife, holds worship services each Saturday under the Calhoun Expressway bridge at 15th Street, providing a hot meal and hygiene items to the underprivileged downtown and giving them the opportunity to worship without anxiety.
“They may not feel accepted. They may not wear the right clothes or have the ability to bathe,” Roger Gardner said. “And here, they know that we’re just going to love them, and we’re going to do everything we can to make them feel welcome and wanted.”
The Saturday before Christmas is a special one, he said, complete with Christmas ham, sweet potatoes and dessert for the meal and toys for the children who attend. The ministry, which works with local churches, serves nearly 250 people each Saturday, but this week’s service had about 900 in attendance, according to Gardner, all of whom he said he considers part of his adopted family.
This year, the ministry got an unexpected surprise when numerous local businesses reached out to donate toys. Gardner said that before their help, the ministry had received around 100 toys for the children. By Thursday, they had received 600.
In addition to planning and serving the meal and organizing and arranging the service, Gardner and about 350 volunteers played Santa and made sure all the presents were wrapped to distribute to the boys and girls.
The appreciation was palpable from many in attendance, and not just those receiving toys.
“The meal is good. The people are good. It’s just, it’s all good,” Randall Spencer said, as his bottom lip quivered. “It’s nice to have somewhere to go.”
In a few weeks, Gardner and his team will begin organizing next year’s Thanksgiving and Christmas services, discussing ways to be more efficient.