Cleo Graham wanted to be ordained as close to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as possible to honor his legacy for civil rights. Turns out Graham is a bit of a trendsetter herself — on Jan. 20 she becomes the first African American ordained in the Rhode Island Conference of the United Church of Christ, just one day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated.
"I was surprised to find it out. I thought along the way I'd meet another African-American female [minister] in Rhode Island," Graham said. "It's a bittersweet moment for me. I'm ecstatic to be a trailblazer, but to think this is accomplished in 2013 is unnerving, and it means that we have that much more work to do."
The ordination ceremony is scheduled for Sunday at Hope Congregational Church UCC in East Providence, R.I., where she has been a member for five years. Graham will join the church's pastoral leadership team alongside the Rev. Amy Frenze, who said Graham will be instrumental in growing the congregation.
Graham was drawn to the UCC because she sought a diverse church setting, and because of the denomination's radical inclusiveness and platform for justice and equality.
"To me that [justice work] is just crystal," said Graham, who realized that it was more realistic to be a female pastor with the UCC, which was the first major church to ordain a woman in 1853.
A resident of Rhode Island for more than 30 years, Graham graduated from Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass., in May 2012.
"Cleo is a very special person — she has made an indelible impression on my heart. Her ordination is indeed a blessing," says Allison McCarty, head of admissions at Andover Newton.
Graham is also Rhode Island's first African American Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner. She worked for more than 25 years as a clinician educator and community health activist. She graduated from Adelphi University, Columbia University and the University of Rhode Island, and was a recipient of the American Heart Association's Northeast Affiliate Nurse of the Year Award in 2000.
Graham said she has received "tremendous help" from what she calls friends of African Americans – people who aren't necessarily African Americans but have helped others overcome road blocks.
"That makes such a difference," Graham said. "It's difficult to rise up to this point without help."