BY CLYDE HUGHES, AC JosepH Media
MILLVILLE â€“ Rev. Ralph Graves Jr. admits that there was a point he had no interest in becoming a preacher.
In fact, he ran away from it. He spent those days patrolling the street as a police officer. But Graves said, God, just wouldn’t let him be. Now after 13 years in the pulpit and growing Cornerstone Community Church to one of the largest congregations in Millville, Graves said he is at peace with his calling.
As Cornerstone Church prepares for its annual Replenish Women’s Conference on Oct. 20, Graves, who is also an accomplished keynote speaker and actor, said he is looking forward to what is ahead.
“I’m a PK, a preacher’s kid,” Graves told Front Runner New Jersey this week, growing up in the pews while his father, Rev. Ralph Graves Sr., preached. “I guess if you’re around the fire long enough you gonna catch fire eventually. I always knew I was called to preach even at a young age, eight and nine. My dad pastored Mount Olive Baptist church in Magnolia (New Jersey), for like 43 years. So I’ve always been in and around it.
“I knew I was going to, I knew I was called, but I ran from that calling until about the age of 25 and at the age of 25, I answered the call and at that time I was married. I was police officer,” he added.
Graves worked as a police officer in places like Camden County and North Piscataway for 20 years before retiring and pursuing being a pastor full time. He said it was God that sent him to Millville to set up his church.
“God told me something very candidly,” Graves said. “He said, if you go to places that a lot of folks don’t want to go to, if you pastor people that other people don’t want to pastor, I will make them into people that everybody wants. And I will send you people everybody wants. And I knew nothing about Millville, nothing. Nothing at all. I was born and raised in Deptford. I was a police officer in Camden County. I didn’t come past Franklinville.
“I just heard of it. My prayer was, ‘Lord, where are you working? And I want to be involved where you are already working,'” Graves added.
Graves started his church in a Best Western Hotel conference room and then moved to an old hospital on High Street with 200 square feet. Now he ministers out of the former Second United Methodist Church with 6,500 square feet. He saw his congregation grow from eight (he admitted most of them were family members) to more than 400 today.
He said not everyone stays at Cornerstone, but he came to understand why.
“Cornerstone is not a church that everybody can belong to because we don’t allow you to hide,”Â Graves said. “We work and we’ve grown by subtraction. Out of all the people that come, a lot of people left. And so that’s one thing a leader has to get used to. A lot of people come to stay, a lot of people come for a season, but some will just leave.
“I had to really understand when God said, ‘Listen Ralph, these are my sheep. They ain’t yours. They belong to me, you just serve the Kingdom and let me,'” Graves said. “So we’ve just been doing kingdom work, kingdom agenda and as successful as we are, it has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with all of us just being submissive to what God is doing here in the city.”
Graves has honed his skills also as a motivational speaker and business consultant. He is a certified member of the John Maxwell Team, one of the country’s top leadership training firms, as a coach, speaker and trainer. He came upon the program while working as a police officer.
“A mentor of mine, Dennis Blackwell, was also pastor in Woodland and he said, ‘Here man, start reading John Maxwell books,” Graves said. “This happened about 15 years ago, maybe even 20 years ago. I was a sergeant in the police department and in between calls I would pull over and start reading.
“I started watching John Maxwell and getting some of his stuff and getting his tapes and all of that. Then I saw something that came across and it talked about the John Maxwell team,” he said.
Graves said that need inside to encourage and help people led to his popular “Truth Boost” email blast that he sends every morning to more than 400 subscribers. “Truth Boost” are words of wisdom and inspiration he sends out to hopes to spark something positive in someone’s day.
“I guess I was always the kid with the biggest mouth,” Graves said jokingly. “I was always that kid, but I was always the encourager. I was always pulling for somebody who was down and out. (With Truth Boost), I send out something every morning, Monday through Friday. It’s about encouraging people and give them something to carry them through their day.
“I had no idea how it became so popular. That is crazy, but people need to be inspired. If it’s just one sentence that people can count on, you never know the state of mind that somebody waking up in the morning,” he added.
Graves is also an author, publishing “Get A Life” and is working on a second book that will come out in February.
“It’s not even titled yet, but it’s in the works,” Graves said. “It’s about the seven universal laws. We talk about the law of reciprocity. We talk about the law of forgiveness and how I saw these laws at work while I was on the street as a police officer and while I was pastoring.”
He is the founder and vice president of City’s Hope Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that offers support and services to disadvantaged families in cities across the Tri-State area, though literacy, educational programs, and adult/child food programs tailored to reach each community’s needs.
“In disadvantaged cities throughout the United States, not just the Millville, City’s Hope will be throughout the country and we hope to see Cornerstone becoming the number one resource in really making a difference,” Graves said.
Of all of his accomplishments, Graves said one of the things he is proud of the most is his 27-year marriage to his high school sweetheart Christine (Tina), the First Lady of Cornerstone.
“I tell people, ‘Not without problem but without scandal for 27 years,'” Graves laughed. “We have three beautiful children. We have three beautiful grandchildren and so marriage still does work. It still works. We were high school sweethearts? It still works.”
Graves said he has never forgotten the lessons he learned while working as a police officer, but has completely made the transition from the patrol to the pulpit as Cornerstone looks to impact the lives of even more in the future.