The Reverend Cleo Graham, F.N.P. (MDiv ’12)
The Rev. Cleo Graham (MDiv ‘12) serves as the pastor of Faith Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut, a historically Black UCC congregation founded over two hundred years ago. She grew up in New Haven, Connecticut and pursued a career as a nurse for many years before attending Andover Newton Theological School and graduating in 2012. Rev. Graham was ordained in the United Church of Christ in the Rhode Island Conference and served in several churches before becoming the pastor of Faith Congregational Church. Rev. Graham has also served as an overseas missionary in Dominican Republic and as a local missionary for Liberia in the aftermath of the Ebola Virus. As a student, she served with an entourage in Conflict Resolution and Nonviolent Strategies in Israel. She has been trained as an Alternative to Violence Facilitator at Massachusetts Dept. of Corrections. Rev. Graham is passionate about genealogy and has discovered that her family includes five generations of pastors, deacons, and evangelists. She is the author of the book From Mess to Message and the creator of the blog “Park and Pray at 1:11.”
On her spiritual upbringing…
I grew up in inner city New Haven. In fact, where I grew up doesn’t even exist anymore. We were told that there was a highway going to be going through this predominantly African American working-class community, but the highway never went there. We had to all move and scatter. That was really strange because the people that we grew up with were a very close-knit community. We ended up eventually moving to the border of Hamden [just north of New Haven]. I grew up with my mother, who was Pentecostal. She went to Beulah Heights Church. My father was Baptist. By the time I was 13, I felt like there were too many rules in that Pentecostal church. I had an interest in sports and getting together with people, and it seemed as though the Baptist youth had it going on! We did a lot of social stuff. I joined Emmanuel Baptist Church on Chapel Street, which is still there, and I enjoyed church so much. We had basketball teams, artwork, drama… There was always something to do there, so it was always fun. I ended up being at church about three days a week, maybe even four days. It was just a place to hang out and have a good time.
My mother had this idea that she wanted me to go to a different school than my siblings. I was the third of four children. She had me take a test for a private school, but I didn’t know I was taking an admissions exam. She just said, “Take this test and do well and I’ll get you something.” I scored high and I got a full scholarship to an all-girls Catholic school. I was not Catholic. It was Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Connecticut. I thought it must be a joke. It wasn’t a joke. And so, they wanted to integrate the school. It was about five hundred students, and they accepted four – what I call – brown girls. We started there, but they never really kept us together in classes. We were separated a lot. I would say it felt a little traumatic for me at first because first of all, it was the suburbs, it was very isolated, it was Catholic, and they had Mass daily.
I still went to my Baptist church, and at the same time I was involved with Yale Drama School for summer school, and I had gotten initiated into transcendental meditation. So, I got my mantra, and that provided some kind of solace for me – learning how to meditate. After a while, I started seeing people as spirits with these kind of tents on that were different colors. I had to rationalize to myself that we’re all one people, and it’s just that we’re wearing different outer clothing. That there’s an inner spirit as well. So, I was introduced to this whole spiritual dimension that has really helped me tremendously.
On her first career as a nurse…
Cleo Graham attended Adelphi University, where she met her husband and began to pursue her career in nursing. She held many different roles in her thirty-year career as a nurse, variously working as a critical care nurse, as director of home care for the VA Hospital, and as an employee health supervisor with over nine hundred employees. She taught for a time, attained a master’s degree as a nurse practitioner, and organized community health programs with churches. She also identified that many veterans living at home were suffering from what she identifies as a “broken relationship with God” and that they needed spiritual care in addition to mental and physical health care. Working with chaplains, she developed one of the nation’s first medical codes for spiritual distress, billable services by which chaplains could provide spiritual health care to patients in need.
On suffering and God…
Then, she experienced a catastrophic injury of her spinal disks, caused by a fall while helping a patient. Bedridden for about a year, she would imagine talking to God about her suffering and wrote notes to document this conversation. The result was the book From Mess to Message.
I just intended to have a conversation with the holy every day, to take me out of the pain, relieve me from it. The mess was my pain, the abrupt stop in my career, and the message was a message of hope. At the end of the book, I realized I was finished writing. I said, “When does this end?” And I felt this voice saying to me, “It ends when you thank God for the pain.” I was so confused about that. How could you thank God for pain? Really? So, I started listening to Mother Theresa’s tapes a lot, and she talked about the people who were suffering in Calcutta. She said they are the called ones. They are the people that are called because we exercise our compassion through them. In other words, we would never learn compassion if we had no one to practice on. We would never learn empathy.
Transition from injury to ministry…
On an ordinary morning, while in bed in the hospital, Rev. Graham heard a voice that said, “Get up and walk.” She had been bedridden from her injury and several surgeries, and hadn’t been able to walk for a long time. She lifted herself off the bed, and took a few steps! Then she walked back to the bed, and the next day thought that she had been dreaming. But her roommate told her that she had walked! So, she began an aggressive regimen of physical therapy and eventually transitioned to walking with a cane. One day, her husband surprised her by driving her to Andover Newton Theological School because he knew that she had always wanted to be a pastor. He brought her to the chapel and she walked inside…
Now this chapel was built in such a way that it’s all windows completely around, so you can look in and see. I was the only one in this chapel, and this huge Bible was open. It was open to Ecclesiastes 3: There’s a time and season for everything. A time to be born, and a time to die. The tears just rolled down my face. I felt like I was going to get the pages wet. I stepped back and sat down and thought about it, and I said, “Well, maybe I can do it.”
So, I went there, and took a few courses each semester. I stayed on campus, and every single time I showed up, there was one of three male students that would help me. I never had to call them. Somehow, they’d be walking past. One of those three were right there to carry my books to get me in and everything. Now mind you, I started there with a cane. By the time I graduated, no cane. And I was walking up the hill! It just felt as though I was getting better and better as I continued, and the support was phenomenal. It was wonderful. Sarah Drummond was so supportive, and she designed such a wonderful program for me that was so enriching, it was just incredible.
So finally, we got to almost my last year and we had to do a border crossing. I think it was a sixteen-day border crossing in Israel in Jerusalem. We went to the Holy City and stayed with Palestinian families. It was wonderful. When I was there, I remember being on Mount Olive and wanting to ride a camel but not sure if I wanted to do that alone. One of the professors rode on the camel with me. I’m so glad I had that experience because it was life-changing for me.
After Andover Newton…
After graduating from Andover Newton Rev. Cleo Graham served as an associate pastor at several churches in Rhode Island before accepting the call to serve as the pastor of Hartford’s Faith Congregational Church in November 2020. Since taking the position, she has initiated a Zoom clinic for members and provides weekly worship services for the congregation. As the Covid-19 vaccine effort continues, she uses her platform as a pastor and experience in health care to educate and guide her community. The Rev. Graham also serves as an active member of Andover Newton’s Alumni/ae Association Board.
Rev. Graham draws on her background in healthcare, theology and familial connections to present Dr. Judy Simmons, her third great grandmother who was a slave and midwife on the plantations of South Carolina Governors Andrew Pickens Jr. and later his son, Frances Pickens. Click here to access the homepage for her articles at SNEUCC.org.