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"Character,' ex-banker leads grass-roots church

Unemployment led to an epiphany. The epiphany eventually led to Nature Coast Community Church.

The Rev. William Jernigan wants to be a pastor for everyone: the comfortable and the downtrodden, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, believers and non-believers.

And Jernigan believes his coming to Spring Hill was predestined by God.

"I can't lose with so many people praying and helping us to accomplish a common goal," said Jernigan, 46, who is pastor of Nature Coast Community Church.

Jernigan and his family came from Crystal Springs, Miss., nearly two years ago to start the new mission church so "people would come to know Christ in the real way."

The journey here took a long and circuitous route.

The road to Spring Hill began with Jernigan's original goal to heal people, not spiritually but physically. He wanted to be a doctor. But later he decided to take a sabbatical and became interested in banking.

He became a hard-nosed banker, "calling in loans and mortgages, never caring about the person or situation." But when the oil business took a downturn, all the banks were affected, and the once-successful banker found himself without a job.

His unemployment gave him more time "to get active in church, and as I did I felt something I had never felt before."

Jernigan likened himself to St. Paul, who converted to Christianity after seeing a vision of Jesus five years after the crucifixion. He was on the road to Damascus to oppose people of the new faith.

In 1986 Jernigan went to the seminary, obtaining a master of divinity degree in 1992 from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, with a major in evangelism.

During those five years, Jernigan worked at odd jobs.

"I kept books, worked for a hardware store, was a janitor at a couple of churches, sometimes doing all three at the same time," he said.

It was some time before his new career choice was understood by his wife and in-laws, all three of whom were in banking.

"To go from a salaried position to not knowing where our next meal would come from" was not readily accepted, he said.

"I married a banker, not a preacher," his wife told him.

After his ordination at Antioch Baptist Church in his hometown of Center, Texas, he led churches in Mississippi and Louisiana before being called to Spring Hill.

About three years ago, the leaders of First Baptist Church of Brooksville, Northcliffe Baptist Church in Spring Hill and Eden Baptist Church in Brooksville began looking to start a new church in south central Spring Hill.

"There was no Southern Baptist work out that way," said the Rev. Greg Champagne, of First Baptist Church of Brooksville. "And there were thousands and thousands of people with no church affiliation."

After sifting through stacks of resumes, Jernigan's surfaced as the most viable, Champagne said. He was the person whose vision for the new church matched those of the three sponsor church leaders.

Why did it take so long for something to happen?

"We have asked that question and perhaps it's just God's timing," Champagne said. "For lack of any other reason, Bill was the guy God had appointed to get out there and do the work."

Nature Coast Community Church was formed with four members: Jernigan, his wife and two children, Sean and Lauren. Sunday worship services began and are still held in the cafeteria at Powell Middle School. Today, there are 35 members.

And what is Jernigan's vision? "We want to be a ministry-oriented church servicing the community and their needs to help them see the love of Christ and make a commitment to him. It's a big vision, but it's simple," he said.

He talks about helping the poor, offering prenatal care, dental work and legal clinics.

"That's what's missing in many churches: the physical demonstration on a large, wholesale level," he said.

"People in the '50s, '60s and '70s never found a lot of practicality in church. In fact, they found hypocrisy. People want something real, and we're trying to do this."

Cindy Page has been a member of the mission church since its beginning, having come from Northcliffe Baptist.

"A lot of the people are new Christians, so we hope to continue to be a driving force in the community," she said.

Page said the congregation already has conducted several mission-type events, including turkey dinners at Thanksgiving and assisting another mission church.

"I consider us to be a contemporary church with a home-style feeling. We're bringing in all ages, from those in their mid 30s to couples in their late 70s," Page said. Although there are only four members in the youth group, they are active, scheduling fellowship time, going to movies and handing out information about the church to people in the neighborhood.

Page is the music leader and has Bible studies every Tuesday in her home. Her husband, Mark, is responsible for video presentations, including showing the pastor's printed sermon on the screen, announcing upcoming events, and displaying song lyrics during worship.

Carole Kuk left the Catholic Church many years ago and did not attend church until joining Nature Coast a little more than a year ago. She says she didn't find the church _ it found her.

Her grandson, who plays music for the church, mentioned to one of the members that his grandfather was ill. Jernigan and church member Mark Page, after obtaining consent, visited the Kuks' home. Mrs. Kuk said she was quite impressed "not so much at his visit, but my promise to go to his church, and the love and friendship to total strangers by the people in the church. It's like it almost wasn't real.

"And the second Sunday was the same, the people were still that way. I said to my husband, "Did you see a big ship outside? Where did they come from?' They are such open-hearted, loving people from all walks of life," Kuk said.

The 65-year-old who moved to Hernando from Richfield, Ohio, said she has read much of the Bible and other Christian books.

"It's amazing what we've learned in a year's time. I understand so much now and sometimes I'm angry because look at what I missed for so many years. (The congregation's) goal is to walk as Christ walked and reach out to all those in need. It doesn't matter if they don't come to church. That's not important," Kuk said.

Kuk describes Jernigan as "open to everybody in the world. He's quite a character and very down to earth. He's the most common, everyday man."

Jernigan says (Spring Hill) is "dead center where God wants me to be and that's why this has been a real adventure for me. The people are excited and growing and happy. It's a real church family, and that's one of the things we try to strive for."