The Rev. Vernon R. Graham, who championed the poor and forgotten in the community and helped establish numerous organizations locally as executive pastor of Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, has died. He was 71.
Graham, who died Friday, was from Menasha, Wisconsin, and had a degree in urban planning. He got a master's of divinity degree in 1972 and first came to Grace Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne in 1976.
In 1986 he became a member of the board of Associated Churches, which started out giving religious instruction in schools, and quickly began to transform it. He became the executive pastor in 1988, and held that position until retiring in 2008.
Graham brought Habitat for Humanity to Fort Wayne in 1986. It became an independent nonprofit in 1998.
He established food pantries in churches in 1988, helped start Vincent House in 1990, and started One Church One Offender in 1991.
In 1994 the organization started A Baby's Closet, designed to provide diapers, wipes, high chairs and car seats to the low income. Hope in a Handbag, a cancer patients' initiative, was started around 2000.
He also helped found the Timothy L. Johnson Academy, a charter school.
"A lot of nonprofits were started under the umbrella of Associated Churches while he was executive pastor," said Gary Pook, finance director. He also doubled the number of churches in the organization, he said.
"He had a passion for the disadvantaged in Fort Wayne and Allen County," Pook said. "It didn't matter whether you were a youth or an adult, he had a passion to do anything he could."
His obituary said that his favorite Bible verse read, "The King will reply, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
Roger Reese, the current executive pastor, said Graham was a real leader in the community who looked at issues. He often spoke up in government meetings.
"He was a shepherd to the city in many respects, he and a number of other pastors now gone," Reese said. "He had a love for the poor and the marginalized, and he wasn't afraid to confront difficult issues. He was a much better executive pastor that I will ever be.
"He was a go getter and he would deal with situations in gracious ways," Reece said.
He had also served in Vassar, Michigan, Perrysburg, Ohio, and Manchester and Muncie in Indiana.
Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Trinity English Lutheran Church, 450 W. Washington Blvd., with visitation an hour before services. Visitation will also be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Messiah Lutheran Church.