PASTOR T.J. Joyner
ADDRESS North Third and Avenue E
PHONE 432-386-4396
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 week of teaching and fellowship. They were also part of a contingent of BSM students he would lead on a six-week mission trip to China in 2008. Because of Chinese government restrictions, their official task would be to teach English, but they expected to engage in some discreet “relationship evangelism.” Dunagan hoped his former church might help support the students financially, but he did not press for, as he might have, a special collection. In fact, no collection of any kind was taken at the service. When I commented on this later, T.J. told me that, years before, perhaps after a preacher had placed too much emphasis on money, the church had decided to put an offering box at the rear of the building and just let people “give as they felt led.” They had gone through some valleys, he admitted, but they trusted God to provide. “And he always has,” he said. “We’ve really been blessed. We’ve been able to support missions throughout Texas and the world.”

Given the work the students were performing at Paisano and the mission trip they were planning, it was fitting that T.J. had elected to preach about achieving true greatness through service. Though he took as his starting point Mark 10:42–45—“Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant”—the sermon was a paragraph-by-paragraph exposition of the same Gospel’s first chapter, which contains an account of the early days of Jesus’ public ministry. Using Jesus as the model, T.J. exhorted us to exhibit humility, resist temptation, persevere in the face of adversity, show care and concern even for those who are frightening and unlovely, and, overall, to live a life known for unselfish service to Jesus and one’s fellow humans. I wouldn’t characterize the sermon as “fantastic,” but it certainly moved straight down the middle of the gospel road and contained a double portion of positive recommendations, appealingly presented.

After an invitation song that drew no converts or penitents down the aisle, T.J. called on a brother named Shorty to close the service with a prayer. Shorty is a strapping man who’s at least six feet four, with a thick black mustache and a weathered visage of the sort captured in James Evans’s memorable photographs of veteran Marathoners. I could tell by his outfit he was a cowboy, and he does indeed work on a ranch near Sanderson. I was surprised, however, to learn that he had just returned from a mission trip to Mongolia and that Mrs. Shorty was still there, teaching English and perhaps doing a little relationship evangelism. I expect part of the reason they had gone was to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, and if one starts in Marathon, Mongolia surely qualifies as “the uttermost parts of the earth.”

It would be a stretch to call our visit to Marathon Baptist a mountain-peak experience. I’ve seen grander buildings, heard better sermons, and sung better music. That said, Patricia and I have commented several times since then, and even mentioned to others, that it was a fine way to spend a Sunday morning in West Texas.