As pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church of Harlem, the Rev. Isaac Graham was quick with a joke but even faster to offer a word of encouragement.
“He would have you laughing and encourage you at the same time,” said his niece, Connie Duncan, of Wheatley Heights. “He had an unwavering spirit and such a commitment to his church and the Lord.”
Graham, who lived in Harlem but grew up on Long Island, died on March 22, at the age of 67. His wife, Cheryl Graham, said the cause was coronavirus, exacerbated by diabetes.
His sudden death was a devastating loss to his parishioners, whom he had led for more than 40 years. Throughout the course of his ministry, Graham served as a “counselor to many,” said Duncan. He ordained eight ministers and over 35 deacons, as well as authored more than 25 books on church matters.
One of Graham’s mentees was Alleyne Hall, an associate minister at Macedonia Baptist Church. She describes the late pastor as “big on training,” holding countless leadership classes and workshops.
“He was a great leader, who was very caring about his congregation,” said Hall, who lives in the Bronx. “He was always wanting to be spiritually prepared and ready to serve God.”
Graham’s passion for teaching extended well beyond the pulpit and into his home, where he served as the family patriarch.
“He has always been such an inspiration to all of us,” said Duncan, adding that Graham was a father-figure to many of his nieces and nephews. “He helped us grow as far as teaching us the word, encouraging us to stay strong in the Lord and to be of good character and have good morals.”
Graham’s support was particularly influential in Duncan’s decision to become an NYPD officer.
“When I told him I was considering taking that job, he said it was a wonderful idea because it could help encourage other people to stay on the right track. That really helped me,” said Duncan, who would often reference his sermons or books for insight on difficult situations. “I try to remember my uncle’s teachings and how he taught us about being forgiving and loving. I use those teachings on a day-to-day basis.”
Graham himself was a police liaison for the 30th precinct, in addition to serving as a financial secretary and treasurer of the Empire State Missionary Baptist Convention and a moderator of the United Baptist Association.
“This man was faithful to his calling, his family and the community,” said J. Raymond Mackey, pastor of Tabernacle of Joy Church in Uniondale.
For Mackey, Graham was more than just a fellow pastor, he was a best friend and a trusted confidant. Over the course of their 45-year friendship, the two shared their pastoral experiences as well as encouraged one another through challenging moments.
“There’s a scripture that says there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. That would be who Pastor Graham was to me, he stuck closer than a brother,” said Mackey. “Everybody needs at least one friend like Isaac Graham was to me.”
A native of South Carolina, Graham’s family moved to Long Island in 1964. He graduated from West Babylon Senior High School, later receiving his associate degree in psychology from Long Island University.
After being ordained as a pastor from Holy Trinity Baptist Church in Amityville in 1975, he attended American Baptist College in Nashville, where he graduated cum laude with bachelor of arts and bachelor of theology degrees.
Graham was appointed to Macedonia Baptist Church in 1979, just one year after he and Cheryl, who met at a gospel concert, were married.
“He said the Lord called him to ministry and he was obeying the call of the Lord to become a preacher,” said Cheryl Graham, noting that in addition to his ministry responsibilities, her husband was always very conscientious of his family. “He was very loving. It was in his DNA. There was never a day I didn’t hear, ‘I love you.’ ”
Though Graham’s death has been hard for the congregation, Hall says that because of Graham’s diligent training the 105-year-old church is prepared to flourish.
“He would go through the principles of leadership and how we should operate in the event the pastor is not there,” said Hall. “He taught us if the pastor gets sick and wasn’t able to be in the pulpit, how we all should come together to make sure the church flourishes. We are coming together like he taught us.”
In addition to his wife, Cheryl, Graham is survived by two children, Courtni Graham-Tolbert and Demetrius Graham-McQueen, and five grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for a later date.