Major L. Jemison Biography
Pastor, denominational leader
The Rev. Major Lewis Jemison, Senior Pastor of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma's St. John Missionary Baptist Church, has emerged as one of the key religious leaders of recent years. A political activist, an innovative church leader, and a bridge-builder between African-American denominations, he has addressed a great variety of issues that are central to the development of the modern black church. President of the Progressive National Baptist Convention since 2002, he stepped into a position once held by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 2003 Jemison was recognized by Ebony magazine as one of the 100-plus most influential figures in black America.
Major L. Jemison was born in Birmingham, Alabama, around 1955. He attended Bishop College in Dallas, receiving a bachelor's degree in religion and philosophy with an emphasis on church ministries and pastoral care in 1977. By that time he had already been licensed as a Baptist minister. He served on the staff of Dallas's Greater Bethlehem Baptist Church, and went on to earn a master's degree at the city's Perkins School of Theology. He received his degree in 1982, the same year he became an ordained minister at Concord Baptist Church, where he would become Associate Pastor.
Jemison's move to St. John in Oklahoma City came in January of 1984. He was an assistant to Pastor W. K. Jackson at first, becoming co-pastor in 1988 as he was groomed to succeed Jackson. Jemison continued to round out his theological and practical education, earning a Doctorate of Ministry from the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri in 1990 and also attaining the status of Certified Psychiatric Counselor from Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital.
St. John Missionary Baptist Church experienced impressive growth as Jemison moved into positions of day-to-day leadership. With a membership approaching 2,500 as of the early 2000s, St. John was something of an African-American "megachurch"—a large institution offering numerous educational, social, and recreational opportunities under the church umbrella. The church boasted a Physical Fitness Ministry (complete with aerobics, judo instruction, and a bowling league), a drama department and dance corps, a decoration ministry, an Optimists' Club chapter, a museum, several choirs, and a 25-piece orchestra, among other enterprises. St. John's range of activities was recognized with an Innovative Church Award from Church Business magazine in 2004.
Jemison also assumed positions of leadership beyond the church, in the Oklahoma City community. He has been a longtime member of the executive board of the Oklahoma City branch of the Urban League and is a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A member of both the Rotary Club and the Masons, Jemison chaired the Oklahoma City Christian Relief Fund, which delivered aid to families of victims of the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal office building. He has served on several civic boards and is a member of the Oklahoma City Parks & Recreation Commission.
Jemison became Senior Pastor at St. John in April of 2002. By that time he had taken on several high-profile preaching assignments, including a guest slot at Washington's National Cathedral in January of 2002. Even in the face of large new projects, such as the construction of a building for the St. John Christian Heritage Academy church school, Jemison led the congregation in a mortgage burning ceremony celebrating the payoff of all debt incurred on the church's landmark building in northeast Oklahoma City, nestled in a natural setting on a 35-acre campus.
Like several of his contemporaries among the top ranks of African-American church leaders, Jemison realized the role the black church could play in encouraging home ownership among African Americans. St. John partnered with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to offer an Oklahoma African-American Homeownership Initiative Housing Fair, offering financial counseling and putting prospective homeowners in contact with private and governmental lending institutions. Jemison spear-headed the event, which grew from an internal St. John program to include representatives from 35 or more area churches.
Jemison's all-around success fitted him for national leadership. Serving successively as first local vice president, Southwest Region president, and second and then first vice president of the nationwide Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), he was elected president of that organization in 2002. The election put Jemison at the helm of more than 1,100 churches nationwide. The post was a historic one, with a long lineage of civil rights activism dating back to Martin Luther King Jr.'s presidency. Jemison was the group's youngest president in more than two decades, and he called for a variety of new initiatives, including an effort to reach prison inmates. "I think that we have surrendered so much of that ministry area to the Muslims, and they are to be commended for their work in that area," Jemison pointed out to the Daily Oklahoman.
Jemison exhorted PNBC member churches to voter registration efforts, and in 2004 he promoted an appearance by minister and Democratic primary presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton, although he did not formally endorse the fiery New Yorker. Jemison also led calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. "Our nation is still burdened with the spoils and rough tirades from the smell of a war that was presented to us under false pretenses," he was quoted as saying by the Houston Chronicle. "Our boys and girls are being upended as we send them out to defend a war that is seemingly pointless and endless."
Many of Jemison's efforts on the national stage were directed toward reconciliation between the PNBC and the larger National Baptist Convention, from which the PNBC had split in the early 1960s. Jemison gave the keynote address at a banquet at the National Baptist Convention's annual meeting and worked to bring about closer relations between the two groups. In 2004 he also was one of the leaders who planned an unprecedented meeting among the boards of all four splintered national black Baptist groups. It was a fitting task for the man Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphreys had called a servant leader and a peacemaker. Jemison is married to his college sweetheart, Jacqueline, and the couple has one son, Master MaKinsley.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 26, 2004, p. B2.
Charlotte Observer, August 6, 2003.
Christian Century, August 28, 2002, p. 17.
Daily Oklahoman, August 9, 2002, p. A2; December 7, 2002, p. D1.
Ebony, May 2003.
Houston Chronicle, August 5, 2004, p. B5.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), September 28, 2002, p. 16.
"Innovative Church Awards 2004," Church Business, www.churchbusiness.com/articles/481cover1.html (October 7, 2004).
"Major Lewis Jemison," St. John Missionary Baptist Church, www.stjohnokc.org/data/bio.html (October 7, 2004).
"Sowing for the Homeownership Harvest," U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, www.hud.gov/local/ok/library/archives/2004-03-04.cfm (October 7, 2004).
—James M. Manheim