“I see myself as a simple person,” Jolena Watson says. She’s a longtime Amarillo hairdresser and the proprietor of Synergy Salon, which she operates out of a multi-acre property in northwest Amarillo. The studio-style salon itself faces north, with stunning views of the river breaks northwest of the city.
The studio location helps her keep an eye on her rescue horses, Little Bit and Buddy, as well as a steady progression of wildlife.
Watson’s self-image might be simple, but her story isn’t. She grew up in Amarillo but didn’t graduate from high school. She became a single mom at the age of 17. Always a hard worker, Watson was determined to support herself. She learned to cut hair and has remained self-employed since.
She views her career as a ministry.
“I’ve been doing this for four decades. My main purpose in doing hair is to take care of people’s hearts, and then I try real hard to please them in the hair area.” Watson laughs, then takes a thoughtful turn. “There are just a lot of people looking for someone to hear them and give them good counsel. That’s my primary job from the Lord—to listen to people where they’re at and help them try to find God’s will and pathway.”
Deep religious devotion is far from rare in Amarillo, and many residents want their faith to fuel their work. From banking to building construction, countless local believers view their jobs as spiritual vocations. It allows them to apply their personal gifts to a purpose beyond making money.
But Watson takes this mindset just a little further. First, there are the horses.
Little Bit and Buddy
Five years ago, Watson dreamed about, in her words, “a little buckskin horse.” She’d never had horses—she didn’t grow up with them at all and didn’t know how to ride—but the dream was incredibly detailed. She couldn’t shake it.
“It was like the horse said, ‘Remember me. I’m yours.’”
It didn’t just feel significant. It felt like a message.
A faithful Christian, Watson has always been open to hearing from God, and she took that dream seriously. She began to suspect horses were in her future, so she and her husband, Tony, began looking for a new home with enough space to raise horses.
That brought them to the property northwest of town. Meanwhile, a friend of Tony’s had recently begun caring for two horses. One was named Little Bit. The other was Buddy. When Watson saw Little Bit, she knew it was the horse from her dream. The Watsons bought the two horses—there was no reason not to include Little Bit’s best friend in the purchase—and took them home.
“I found myself at the age of 56, learning how to take care of horses,” she says. “I am confident God wanted me to have them for His purposes.”
Those purposes took shape as Watson saw how children and adults alike reacted to her gentle companions. In response, she developed a free program she calls The Horse Encounter, and since launching it, she’s invited more than 500 people—mostly children’s groups—to spend time with Little Bit and Buddy in the horse barn and arena on her property. These might be Sunday school classes, San Jacinto Christian School field trips, or other small groups. “You get to learn a horse fact, a human fact and a God fact. You groom and saddle and get to take a ride. It’s one of the sweetest ways for people to start to see God’s will and heart for them, just using these horses,” she explains.
During the fall hunting season, the occasional presence of bird hunters behind her home complicates these encounters, so Watson has self-published a book called Little Bit & Buddy Choose Joy. “Now we use it as a backup tool to help people have the full experience,” she says. “It’s a fun little book. It’s got Scripture, prayer and stories about the horses.”
But there’s more to Watson’s ministry than hair or horses.
Some missionaries take a long-term approach to their work. They’ll move to a new country, train in its customs and culture, and immerse themselves in a community in order to meet needs and bring about change. Others, like church groups, go on frequent short-term trips. They’ll travel overseas to help build homes, teach English or otherwise find ways to serve.
Watson’s approach to mission work includes part of both scenarios. “A lot of people do long-term or short-term, but for me it’s an everyday mission,” she says from her salon, only days after returning from a two-week trip to Africa. “I view the word ‘missionary’ as wherever you are, you wake up and ask the Lord, ‘What is the mission of the day?’”
That mindset has taken Watson on at least 100 trips to other countries for mission work, from Central America to Africa to Asia. It started in the 1990s with mission trips organized by Paramount Terrace Christian Church (now Hillside Christian Church). But by 2009, Watson had decided to launch and fund her own nonprofit organization, Believe in His Name.
She now ministers and travels the world under that banner.
The organization has a mailing list of around 200 donors who fund Watson’s mission activity. The work itself is broad. Watson and her organization have launched a women’s literacy program among the Maasai people in Kenya. She has funded a rescue home for children in Ethiopia, where nine former street children now live in safety and security. She’s conducted medical missions in Muslim countries in West Africa, quietly started a school in a war-torn region of East Africa, and sought to reach people groups in the Sahara.
Watson even found her way into an Asian country notoriously closed to American visitors—for any reason, but especially for religious reasons—and she’s been there more than once. (That story involves goats, the Gospel, and a complicated set of geopolitics, which makes it best that Brick & Elm not divulge many details.)
The work seems random, but Watson says almost all the opportunities—just like her relationship with Little Bit and Buddy—begin, literally, with a dream. “Each dream that has been given to me is for a new country we are about to begin ministry in. Sometimes it’s literal. Sometimes it’s symbolic,” she says. Watson wakes up, writes down the details, gets to work, and then months later finds herself among, for instance, members of an isolated ethnic group in northern Africa.
Sometimes Watson works solo. Occasionally, one of her many donors will accompany her. She also might also lead a large team, while dozens of Amarillo friends and clients pray for her. She travels outside the United States at least three times a year, often for two weeks or longer.
“Our motto or vision is to find the lost, disciple the found, and train up ambassadors,” she says. “That’s everything we do.” Watson says she walks away from each circumstance having learned more about God and His provision.
When she returns home, she gets back to cutting hair.
Watson’s customers understand. “Really, the Lord has given me the most abundant, gracious clientele, “ she says. “They completely support what I’m doing, whether it’s through prayer, encouragement or donations. Before I leave, they’re willing to come in early. When I get back, they’re willing to come in late.”
Watson recognizes the eccentricity of what she does. She’s a high-school dropout who runs an almost-solo global missions organization from a hair salon on a horse property on the outskirts of a city in the Texas Panhandle.
That’s not even the full story: Watson also hosts wilderness retreats at a property near Lake Meredith, for the purpose of training, in her words, “young, missionary-minded people.” COVID put a pause on those operations but they are slowly ramping back up.
Regardless, she says Amarillo is the right place to do what she does. Yes, global travel would be a lot easier if she lived in an international hub like Dallas or Houston. But there’s something intangible about this community that keeps Watson both in business and in mission work. “Amarillo is a city of light. I cannot imagine living anywhere else. This is home,” she says.
At least 95 percent of her funds come from individual donors living in Amarillo. Not from grants, businesses, or major organizations, though Trinity Fellowship Church does make a monthly contribution to her nonprofit. “The people of the Panhandle are extraordinarily generous and encouraging,” Watson says.
“I just have a thankful, grateful heart for what the Lord has done for me,” she says, looking out her window at the property, the horses, the wintry Panhandle landscape. She brings up the Old Testament story in which God gives a vision to a young Isaiah, asking who will deliver His message.
Isaiah, the future prophet, replied, “Here I am. Send me.”
In her own way, Watson keeps echoing that statement. “I’ve made a vow in my heart to always tell the Lord ‘yes,’” she says. “I’m pretty sure that’s all I need to be qualified.”