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Juanita Hanger Johnson
Juanita Hanger Johnson Leaves Legacy as Trailblazing Community Advocate, Educator and Deacon
Career educator and pioneering Episcopal Church deacon Juanita Hanger Johnson, 92, died Dec. 4 in her northwest Omaha home after a long illness. She was preceded in death by her husband George Warren Johnson and her daughter Joslen Johnson Shaw.
Johnson came from a family of high achievers and went on to make her own mark. Her mother Ione Hanger was an Omaha Public Schools teacher, a missionary and a community volunteer. She also taught at Creighton University. Her father Saybert Hanger was among the area’s first Black attorneys and federal meat inspectors and the Nebraska Urban League’s first Black president.
A “cradle to the grave Episcopalian,” Juanita grew up in St. Philip Church. In 1986 she helped broker the merger of all-Black St. Philip with all-white St. John to form the racially blended Church of the Resurrection. She was church school superintendent, vacation bible schools supervisor and St Teresa’s Guild secretary.
In 2004 she was ordained the first Black deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, which recognized her service with the Bishop’s Cross in 2019.
In a statement, diocese bishop Rt. Rev. J. Scott Barker, said: “Juanita was a quintessential deacon of the church. As an educator and advocate for civil rights, it was her passion and purpose to serve those on the margins, and to lead her fellow Episcopalians in ministries of justice that sewed healing and hope She will be long remembered for her keen intellect, gentle kindness and faithful determination … It would be impossible to overstate the profound impact she had in our Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska.”
In an email. Rev. Jason Emerson, a past rector at COR, said this “trailblazer was one of the holiest people I’ve ever had the honor to minister alongside,” adding, “She always had a still-waters-run-deep strength of presence about her.”
“She did not like the lime light. I only got her to preach once but, unsurprisingly, she blew the doors off the joint.”
Long before becoming a deacon, Johnson broke barriers. At Omaha Central High School she was the only Black student on the year book and newspaper staffs. After studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she earned a bachelor’s degree at Fisk University and a physical therapy degree at Cleveland Clinic. She later earned a master’s at Creighton. She also completed studies at Drake University and then-Omaha University,
She married Korean War veteran George Warren Johnson, a Marshalltown, Iowa native, in 1958. He made history integrating Wayne State (Neb.) College as an undergraduate. He became an Omaha Benson High School art teacher. Juanita went from being a physical therapist to an OPS math teacher and guidance counselor. She ended her career at Omaha North High School in 1997.
The Johnsons encountered red lining barriers when seeking to move outside the then-prescribed African American community. In 1969 they built a home in the metro’s first intentionally mixed race subdivision, New Horizons, formed by veterinarian Dr. A.B. Pittman, architect Golden Joseph Zenon and architect-civil engineer J.Z. Jizba.
The deceased was active in the Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha and the Omaha chapter of The Links. Following her OPS retirement, she served as a hotline counselor for the YWCA’s Women Against Violence Program.
“She worked to get women out of domestic violence and trafficking situations long before the broader Episcopal Church would even talk about it,” Emerson said. “In church tradition we say that icons see us as we look upon them. Juanita was an icon. She saw us, truly and deeply. By seeing us she called us into a deeper relationship with God and to greater service of our neighbors.”
She is survived by her son Marty Johnson (Laura) of Eagan, Minn., grandchildren Zach Shaw (Katie), Alyssa Phillips (Jess) and GT, and great-grandchildren Zachary, Ethan, Christopher and Aubrey.
A service is set for 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 11 at Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd. Memorials can be made to the church.