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Gainesville ministry serves homeless living under bridge
Volunteers Heather Marshall, left, 13, and mother Rachel prepare the drinks before serving a group of homeless people under the bridge at Queen City Parkway. The Marshalls volunteer through the Gainesville First United Methodist Church. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

There’s a world above and another just below the Queen City Parkway bridge in Gainesville.

For most people, the busy four-lane road is just a means to an end as they step on the gas and cross the structure on their way to work, home or elsewhere.

But for a small group dealing with homelessness, the concrete supports, heavy chunks of rock, and a dirt and gravel road under the bridge serve as a gathering place and living quarters.

"Most people never know about it. I’ve driven over that bridge how many times in the six years I’ve lived here ... and never thought twice about it?" said Dr. Brad Pierce, a Gainesville internist who started a ministry there with a friend, Clint Anderson, this past Thanksgiving.

The two began their work as an offshoot of the ARK (Actions of Real Kindness) Project, which involved random acts of sharing the love of Christ, such as handing out bottled water to people on Saturday afternoons.

"We were doing that for two or three years but felt like we needed to maybe start focusing on ... being more specific in a certain area or with certain group of people," said Pierce, a member of Gainesville First United Methodist Church.

He was volunteering at Good News Clinics when he asked around about a good location for the ministry work and was directed to the bridge.

A bit fearful, Pierce took some hamburgers with him on his first trip under the bridge.

"The people I met were very kind," he said. "We talked for a good long time. I told them who I was and what we were going to do."

Later, he and Anderson — a member of First Baptist Church in Gainesville — started going to the bridge on Sundays, a particularly hard time for the homeless to find food.

"It started with me and Clint and a few guys who would hang out and talk," Pierce said. "... We began to realize we had more in common than we thought."

As friendships developed, the two men began sharing their Christian testimonies and started studying passages from the Bible with the homeless.

"Over time, more people started coming and the cool thing is people from the church started showing up and we had never asked anybody for anything," Pierce said. "... Very talented people started coming down there ... to worship with us."

Anderson and Pierce would "scratch together meals," but as that became more of a need, several other members and churches started visiting and helping out.

"It’s really kind of a neat thing," Pierce said. "People are just coming out of the woodwork."

The area where the homeless gather has become a sort of sanctuary, with a wooden cross capped by a crown of thorns erected just off the dirt path. One of the bridge columns has a collection of beer cans at its base, but also bears a sign proclaiming The Lord’s Prayer.

During a visit by Pierce last Sunday, several others showed as well, putting up tables and chairs and getting food ready for a meal.

Steven Farr and Nick Johnson strummed their guitars in preparation to lead worship with Donna Hubbard.

Johnson said he sees the bridge ministry as a way "to give hope in a time when hope is really hard to come by."

"I first attended to see what it was like but (later realized) that God’s obviously doing something down here," Farr said.

Hubbard added, "You just got to come with an open heart, trust God and serve ... and pray."

"Our focus down here is showing love and allowing the word of God and the holy spirit to change people," she said. "... We are just as broken as they are in many ways. That’s kind of the irony.

"A lot of the servants and volunteers come down here and we come out changed. To me, that’s the way God works."

Pierce agreed.

"This ministry is just as much for the folks who are ministering as it is for those being ministered to," he said. "It has given hands and feet to those things in the Bible that we’re supposed to be doing."

Robert, one of the homeless men served by the ministry, said the Queen City bridge used to be a place where he and others would hang out and drink. He wound up in prison.

"It has changed. When I came back, it was a whole different scene," he said. "It’s a better thing, because people are being helped. ... To me, God sent something to help us. The fights that used to be down here aren’t down here any more."

Another man, Carl, lived under the bridge for a while but has been able to get back on his feet, landing a job and finding a place to live.

For him, returning to his old stomping ground holds a purpose.

"I am back to share with these guys there is still hope," Carl said.