After 52 years of ministry, skydiving 98-year-old preacher wants people to see Jesus in his life
At 98, North Carolina preacher Roy Jernigan is still excited about sharing the Gospel. Even after serving as a missionary on Indian reservations across the country for 52 years, Jernigan won’t stop preaching because his life is his ministry, and he wants people to see Jesus when they see him.
After resigning from full-time duties as a pastor in Texas just over a year ago to live with his daughter Linda Williams in La Grange, Jernigan has continued preaching to hundreds of people weekly through his Facebook ministry, Preacher Roy Ministries. And he remains energized to keep himself available for the Lord’s service by taking care of his body physically and spiritually.
“Well, I'm going to be honest with you. In my life, [I] just simply stayed with the Lord. He saved me when I was 28 years of age. I turned my life over to the Lord. And from that time on, I have tried to eat properly. And I have exercised, kept my body in good condition, and I live right,” he explained in a recent interview with The Christians Post.
Had it not been for age-related macular degeneration — an eye disease that blurs central vision — Jernigan would still be leading his church in Texas.
“My vision and my hearing are my two greatest problems. I have macular degeneration. Been getting shots in each eye for the past 11 years,” he said. “That's one of the reasons I left the mission. In the pastorate in Texas, I could no longer see the people. I could see, but I couldn't identify them. And I'd have funerals and I couldn't read the Bible. Now I have to quote from the Scriptures I'd memorized through the years.”
Jernigan now depends on his daughter, Linda, to drive him around but insists that as long as he can find alternative ways to study and read, he will continue doing ministry online. Apart from his vision, Jernigan says his health remains strong.
“As you probably are aware, I don't have a doctor and I'm on no medication and I have been doing exercises. I do body exercises or push-ups every day. And I generally walk about a mile or two. And I've been doing that for years and [this] has kept my physical body in good condition,” Jernigan said when asked how he has managed to stay so healthy in his old age. “My whole life, people say, ‘Why don't you retire?’ My life, really, to be honest with you, my life is my ministry.”
Jernigan recently made national headlines after deciding, with encouragement from his family, to go skydiving to celebrate his milestone just two years shy of his centennial. He told CP that the reason he decided to take the plunge was to use the moment to glorify God, and he has gotten the opportunity to do so already in several media interviews.
“In about September, October (2022), I started praying about this thing. And I said, 'Lord, if you can get the glory out of it, I’ll do it. But it's not for me. I'm not a thrill seeker. I have nothing to prove. I have been up the mountain, down the mountain, through the valleys. I'm not trying to prove anything. But if I can give you the glory out of this, and you will give us the weather fitting, I'll jump unless you tell me no,'” Jernigan said. “If it's a bad day, I'll know it's a no. And so I left it and I prayed continually every day.”
And the day of the jump, Jan. 24, turned out to be a bright sunny day in North Carolina. Jernigan took the jump with Skydive Coastal Carolinas and survived, much like he did in World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars as a Naval Corpsman.
Though he was recently diagnosed with COVID-19, Jernigan, who got vaccinated for the virus, said God protected him from getting sick at the height of the pandemic even as he lost several church and family members.
“I did have several of my members, as I say, who died with this. And I have a nephew that died with that thing in Virginia. But the Lord, my body was in good condition. And I feel like really it's the Lord's hand was with me,” Jernigan said.
The strongest challenge to Jernigan’s faith
In his 52 years of ministry, Jernigan recalled facing many challenges along the way but none more challenging than losing his wife, Lizzie, in January 2011.
“I suppose the worst time that I've had in the in those years, the worst part was my wife had a heart attack down in Hollywood, Florida,” he said.
Even though doctors managed to revive his wife, Jernigan said she suffered brain damage and slowly deteriorated over a period of about five or six years until her death.
“She started off a slow process of degenerating in the mind and the doctor told me it would probably be slow but the brain ... would probably die. Those were tough times for me,” Jernigan recalled.
“We had done everything together from our childhood on. … Once you saw one, you saw the other. We traveled together. We worked together. And she started losing her mind. And it took about five or six years. And let me say to you, any person that has not been through that cannot know exactly how a person feels when someone they love [is taken from them],” he said.
“When that mind begins to fail and you know that they don't know what is taking place, it just breaks your heart. That was the toughest few years for me. And as we prayed together every night, I'd put her to bed and I'd say, ‘Honey, I love you.’ Then she’d say, ‘I love you,’” he continued. “On Sunday night of January 9, 2011, I put her to bed that night and I said, ‘I love you.’ The last word she ever spoke was, ‘I love you too.’”
Jernigan said after his wife’s death he spent his life living alone until November 2021 when, after Linda’s husband died, they both decided to move back to North Carolina where they would be closer to family.
“When she was going through the great difficulties it was very tough, but prayer and trusting the Lord, He brought me through it,” he said of his wife’s passing. “I didn't really see any purpose. But then I recognized that I had a lot of people that loved and prayed for me and wanted me to keep going. So I picked up the pieces and by God's grace and mercy, I have continued on,” he said. “There's no doubt about it. When my wife died, part of me died. One of the people said the best part.”
On pastors and the state of the Church
Asked to comment on the state of the American Church today, Jernigan quickly explained that the main driver of his faith is the Bible without the trappings of denominational restrictions.
“I'm not a denominational man. I don't criticize the denominations but think about this: we have all kinds of denominations — Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, you name it, and every one of them has a different doctrine,” he explained. “They can't all be right. And so, consequently, I don't claim a denomination. I claim to be a Christian. And as a Christian, I follow the New Testament teachings on the Apostle Paul.”
And Jernigan’s nondenominational approach to ministry aligns with the direction of the American Church today. Data from the 2020 U.S. Religion Census show that in the last 10 years, the number of American Christian adherents in nondenominational churches nearly doubled in number and surpassed America's largest Protestant denomination, Southern Baptist, by several million adherents.
Other recent studies also show that while America remains a highly religious nation, with seven in 10 claiming affiliation with some kind of organized religion, for the first time in nearly 80 years, fewer than half now say they have formal membership in a specific house of worship. Church attendance has also continued to decline in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
While he admits that being a Christian today is much harder than it was 50 years ago when fewer distractions were competing for people’s attention, Jernigan believes that the model of many church ministries today is partly to blame for people deserting the pews.
“I'll be honest with you, one of the biggest problems that pastors have today is trying to build a church on their own,” Jernigan told CP.
“Today, preachers have gotten themselves into such a rut by building big buildings with stained glass windows and everything. And the people have deserted them because they get tired of being bled to death [financially]. And hear the preacher say, 'you got to give, you got to give, you got to give.' My conviction is you don't have to hound Christians to give. If they are saved, they love the Lord, they will give,” he said.
Jernigan also criticized preachers who treat their ministry as a business.
“I think it's the wrong approach. Commercial? You don't commercialize God. I believe this is a gross mistake, that people, you see so much of this today, trying to commercialize and put things into a peaceful type of thing rather than teaching the Bible,” he said. “I do believe if preachers would come down off the high horse, and quit preaching, what I call cotton candy messages, that's all fluff and no substance, I believe there'd be a great difference in the world today.”
And as the church continues to compete for the attention of society today, Jernigan is worried that current social trends might lead to a point in society where Jesus is “completely rejected.”
“Today, there is much more to pull a person away than there was in my day,” he said. “It is much more difficult. And it does appear to me that as time approaches, that things are going full circle to the extent that Christ … is going to be completely rejected.”
He urged Christians who left institutional churches but still want to maintain their Christian faith to keep reading the Bible and praying to God for direction.
“My heart goes out to so many people, it really does,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there that are hungry, and they're thirsting for the Word of God, but they don't have anyone to give it to them.”
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