Homer Jernigan, 89, minister, BU faculty member, social justice advocate

By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / September 12, 2011

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From his 20s on, United Methodist minister Homer L. Jernigan began every day at 5:30 a.m. by reading a chapter of the Bible, starting with the Old Testament, then the Apocrypha, then the New Testament. “This man really knew his Bible,’’ said his son, David H. Jernigan, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

“My father was a minister who practiced more than he preached,’’ he said, including “making the pastorate work better’’ by combining psychology, clinical practice, and spiritual understanding. A member of the faculty of Boston University School of Theology for 34 years and a pioneer in the field of clinical psychological training for clergy, Rev. Jernigan was a staunch advocate of social justice.

In the 1940s, his son said, he was jailed briefly for committing civil disobedience by sitting in the “colored’’ section of a movie theater in Denver.

One of David’s favorite recollections of his father, he said, was hearing his lecture to theology students at the University of Denver.

“Here was a man who could cite chapter and verse from the Bible like the most Bible-thumping fundamentalist preacher you have ever heard, and yet he harnessed that knowledge to a theology that was all about social justice and human rights, about the church as an organizing rather than a judging force in society, about the importance of caring for the environment and being an environmentalist as part of living our covenant with God, and about God as a loving, caring, and forgiving presence in the universe.’’

His last book, left unfinished, his son said, profiled Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Bishop Desmond Tutu “as models of the way Christians need to be in the 21st century.’’

Rev. Jernigan, who joined the Boston University School of Theology faculty in 1957 and directed its Danielsen Pastoral Counseling Center from 1963 to 1971, died of a stroke at his home in Hanover, N.H. on July 30. He was 89 and had lived with his family in Newton from 1957 to 2005.

On its website, what is now the Danielsen Institute describes its mission as promoting “the benefits of a close collaboration between psychology and religion to alleviate human suffering and enhance human growth.’’

Rev. Jernigan fulfilled its mission well. “He was unforgettable,’’ said Donald Manthei of Newton, a former student, colleague, and friend. “I would call him the quiet champion of the unnoticed, whether that was a person, a group, or a new idea. He was intellectually sharp, patient, and a good listener. He took a historic university department [the institute] that was meandering and brought new vitality, purpose, and direction to it.

“As a scholar, Homer was very interdisciplinary oriented. He explored the interplay of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and theology. His focus was on the individual, each person in his or her community, and by community he meant many concentric circles, from the immediate small group to the wider range of community, including cultures. He conceived the idea of an institute of religion and mental health so he gathered a dozen former students and created the Boston Institute of Psychotherapy.’’

Students were a large part of Rev. Jernigan’s life, Manthei said.

“Homer believed that he needed to perform in a way that would be a positive model for his students. As a teacher, he was clear, precise, and illuminated a very broad spectrum. He set high standards for himself and his students. On several days when his lecture delivery was a bit dry, it was still packed with rich content. When Homer asked for feedback, he responded to student critiques, getting up from his desk, walking around the room, and lecturing with warm enthusiasm and dry wit. Until his declining years, Homer never seemed to age. At 40, his almost craggy face looked 55. But at 65, he still looked 55.’’

Merle Jordan of Stoneham, a former colleague, said that while Dr. Jernigan was “a thoughtful and quiet man, he was also very creative and assertive about implementing his ideas in the classroom as well in the clinical training setting. He was also a family man who was especially proud and loving of his children. He led the development of a rigorous PhD program through the graduate school that interfaced with a two-year clinical training program through the Danielsen Institute. He was also an early advocate about the importance and uniqueness of cultures in effecting the development of human personality. He taught in Singapore and published his experiences of the impact of culture on human development. ’’

“Homer was a relational and loving person,’’ said Carole Bohn of Dennis, another of Rev. Jernigan’s successors as Danielsen director. “He was a very gentle, soft-spoken, and very thoughtful active church man, also concerned with issues of other denominations. He was an expert [in teaching counseling] of grief and grieving.’’

He was born in Longmont, Colo., where he attended public schools and the University of Denver, graduating in 1943 with a bachelor’s degree in social science.

His son said he was expelled by his fraternity there “for advocating racial integration and was active in civil rights and community organizations.’’

He graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1946 with a master’s in divinity and served churches in St. Albans and Amityville on Long Island. He was ordained a Methodist minister and married Margaret Jane Belinfante in 1949. He worked as a hospital chaplain in Chicago and Staunton, Va. He received his doctorate in psychology from Northwestern University in 1959.

On sabbatical in 1971 and 1972, he served as clinical director of a counseling center and taught at Trinity Theological College. He and his wife returned there after his BU retirement in 1991 and also worked at Dunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan. They co-wrote a book on aging in a Chinese society.

After the death of his wife in 2005, Rev. Jernigan moved to the Kendal at Hanover retirement community in Hanover, N.H. There, his son said, “he developed a second calling as [a church-oriented] singer. He continued his teaching and ministry, focusing on empowerment of elders and stewardship of the environment.’’

In 2009, he married Jeanne Nolte.

In addition to his wife and son, he leaves three daughters, Daryl Jernigan Battin of Lexington, Catherine Jernigan Wolinsky of Freeport, Me., and Nan Jernigan Danforth of Stonington, Conn.; another son, Christopher of Waitsfield, Vt.; and six grandchildren.

Memorial services will be held at 2 p.m. Sept. 17 at Kendal at Hanover and at 2 p.m. Sept. 18 in United Parish of Auburndale.

Gloria Negri can be reached at

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