PASTOR T.J. Joyner
ADDRESS North Third and Avenue E
MAIN SERVICE Sundays at 11:00 A.M.
On a visit this summer to Marathon, gateway to Big Bend National Park and home of the historic Gage Hotel, I noticed that, in addition to several art galleries, antiques shops, and bookstores and Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit Bakery, it has two Baptist churches—at least one more than a town of almost five hundred would seem to require. High Desert Baptist, an obvious newcomer, occupies a neat storefront on the two-block row of buildings that constitutes the central business district. Its claim to be “Independent, KJV [King James Version]” suggests that it regards Marathon Baptist, established in 1898 and just a couple blocks away, as having drifted from sound doctrine and practice, even to the point of reading Bibles translated more recently than 1611.
Come Sunday, I was torn. I’m interested in people with pretensions to perfection, but I’m also comfortable among backsliders. My dilemma was eased when, five minutes before church time, only the preacher had shown up at High Desert, looking somewhat forlorn as he sat on a bench in front of the rented sanctuary. Having spied out the land on a walk about town earlier that morning, I decided to act on the recommendation of a lady in one of the antiques shops who, though an admirer rather than an adherent, had told me that the minister at Marathon Baptist was “fantastic—fantastic!”
In a town where landscaping and property maintenance do not rank among the highest priorities, Marathon Baptist stands out, reflecting both parishioner pride and the blessings of benefaction. Well-tended greenery on immaculate grounds was paid for and planted by a friend of the church who also designed the Gage Gardens, a stunning oasis that rivals its owner hotel as a tourist attraction. A 2004 legacy from a previous parishioner financed a major remodeling of the 1910 church building, a simple wooden edifice housing a sparkling-clean space with walls and ceiling of beige bead board. A new baptistry is backed by a mural of what could be a river in the Davis Mountains, coursing through realistically sere terrain.
As my wife, Patricia, and I approached the church, we saw a young man dressed in rumpled tan trousers and a dark checked shirt, with a white T-shirt showing at the neck. A bright smile gleamed out of a tanned face, and his even crop of dark hair and whiskers looked as if it had been shaved about five days earlier. I thought he might be the yardman. As it turned out, he was Pastor Todd Joyner, who welcomed us warmly and insisted we call him T.J. Those arriving with us, a congregation of about forty people, were an eclectic group that appeared to be representative of the community—Anglos and Hispanics of varying ages and levels of affluence, city folk who had moved to Marathon for the art and atmosphere, ranch hands, and a heavily tattooed man who looked as if he were nobody to mess with but seemed to be of a gentle spirit. As expected from our meeting with the pastor, dress was casual and the feeling friendly.
T.J. opened the service with a brief, earnest prayer. His wife, Traci, an attractive and well-spoken woman, then urged people to support the upcoming vacation Bible school by taking one of the pieces of paper stacked on a table in the foyer and buying whatever item was written on the back, “like,” she suggested, “a can of Ro-Tel,” something I had never regarded as a VBS essential.
The regular pianist was absent, but five students from the Baptist Student Ministries at Sul Ross State University, in Alpine, led the singing, accompanied by BSM adviser Dan Dunagan on guitar. Dunagan had served this church as a part-time, commuting pastor for five years and had invited Joyner, who was active with the BSM and felt a call to the ministry, to move to Marathon and serve as associate pastor, handling day-to-day responsibilities and doing some preaching. T.J. became the full-time pastor in 2005 but maintains a close relationship with his mentor and the BSM.
We sang several familiar hymns, and Jermaine Packer, a star basketball player for the Sul Ross Lobos, performed a commendable vocal solo. Dunagan explained that the students were in the area to help prepare for the eighty-seventh annual Paisano Baptist Encampment, between Alpine and Marfa, where 1,200 people would gather for a