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Brad Graves thrives in ministry amid personal challenges

Pastor Brad Graves preaches at FBC Ada, Okla. The picture on the screen shows the tremendous weight loss Graves has undergone after health concerns in 2023. (Photo submitted)

ADA, Okla. (BP) – When Brad Graves began pastoring Cross Church San Diego in 2007, wildfires forced his evacuation before his moving truck arrived.

Afterwards, Graves led the church in disaster relief as San Diego County recovered from a series of wildfires that burned 197,990 acres, destroyed 1,141 residences and killed two people.

In 2011, on his fifth Sunday pastoring Calvary Baptist Church in Joplin, Mo., an EF5 tornado killed more than 160 people in the city, destroyed 8,000 buildings and is today ranked as the costliest tornado in U.S. history.

“The whole town was just devastated. The next few years we just did disaster relief. We saw so many people come to the Lord. We baptized 600 people in four years,” said Graves. At one point, 13 tractor trailers of food and supplies were in Calvary’s parking lot.

“People call me the disaster pastor because I’ve been through so much disaster.”

Graves has led pastorates to respond to disasters in the U.S. and abroad, helping communities recover from earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes, including the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

He is the newly elected first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Challenges hinging on life and death have not deterred Graves in ministry spanning 30 years, including his current pastorate at First Baptist Church in Ada.

Saved in 1992, he led his brothers to the Lord and prayed 25 years for the salvation of his father O’Dell Graves, sharing the Gospel with him frequently.

“And for 25 years he said no,” before opening his heart only a month before he died of bladder cancer in 2017 at 83. “He said, ‘I’ve been watching your life, I want what you have.’ Every time I saw him between that and the month later when he died, he wanted me to pray for him.”

In 2007, Graves and his wife Becky endured the stillborn birth of their daughter Isabella Hope, conceived after more than seven years of secondary infertility. At the 20-week ultrasound, doctors discovered the baby was severely malformed with no chance of survival.

“For the next 20 weeks, we knew we would not come home from the hospital with a baby,” he said. “We knew she would go to Heaven. Becky was such a brave woman to put her body through all that. And one day she didn’t feel the baby moving.”

Doctors confirmed Isabella Hope had passed away within the past 12 hours. Becky gave birth and the family held a funeral.

“If you lose a child, you have a funeral and you know how to grieve,” Graves said. “But when a mom has a miscarriage, culture really doesn’t tell you how to grieve that. It just kind of tells you push on. It’s really hard just to push on.”

The Graveses have 25-year-old twin sons Nathan and Noah — born seven years before Isabella Grace – a 14-year-old son, Levi and 8-year-old daughter, Gracie.

Graves suffered a severe health challenge in 2023 that nearly convinced him he was dying. He had battled obesity most of his adult life, losing and regaining at least 100 pounds three times in the past 25 years. In early 2023, he reached his breaking point at age 49. He was 360 pounds, diabetic and hypertensive, with high blood sugar levels that prevented him from participating in what would have been the fifth 40-day fast in his spiritual walk.

“For the first time in my life I realized my weight is honestly affecting my ministry,” he said, “and now my walk with the Lord.”

He underwent a modified duodenal switch, the most invasive yet considered the most successful form of bariatric surgery.

“I was losing a pound every 12 hours the first couple of months. I got really sick,” he said. “At some time in June or July I developed 100 percent food aversion, which means everything I ate I threw up. Everything. For about four months it was really bad.”

Doctors removed his damaged gallbladder in July, but the complete food aversion continued. Malnourished and on the brink of kidney and liver failure, he passed out during a return visit to his doctor’s office. Doctors used a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line) to administer nutrients for a month, requiring him to carry a backpack as if it were an appendage.

“There was one point where I thought I was going to die, at about the beginning of August. I thought this is it, I can’t survive this,” he recalled. “But by October, I’m like alright, I’m not going to die.”

Graves rebounded. He’s eating healthy, has lost 195 pounds, exercises four days a week and is continuing in ministry, with trips and outreaches planned in the U.S. and abroad this year.

Graves’ friend Steve Dighton, retired founding pastor of Lenexa Baptist Church in Lenexa, Kansas, commends Graves for his persevering and energetic commitment to ministry at First Baptist Ada, Dighton’s home church.

“These past 8 years I’ve seen him diligently and faithfully lead that older established church well,” Dighton said. “He is a soul-winner, driven by reaching people with the Gospel. Baptisms are significantly [up] under Brad’s ministry.”

Dighton describes Graves as “a kind and compassionate shepherd,” “a servant leader” with a “heart for missions,” a “man of persistent prayer” who leads by example, and a father and husband who prioritizes family.

When Graves spoke to Baptist Press a week after the 2024 SBC Annual Meeting, he had just taken 15 students to Orlando, Fla., for Student Leadership University, a trip normally led by an associate pastor.

“My middle school minister, my high school minister, my college minister — all their wives are pregnant, I mean really close (to delivery). And then my NextGen pastor is preaching at camp. And I had my youngest son going (to Florida),” Graves said. So, he volunteered to lead the trip.

“And next week we go to Colorado” for a pastors’ conference and other ministerial outreaches. “I have a good staff, it’s just, we run hard.”

Based in a small college town, Graves hopes to become an equipping church for young college students, driven by Ephesians 4:12 and a vision he received three years ago. The NextGen ministry draws hundreds of students to Wednesday night events and is growing.

With 17 mothers in the church currently pregnant, First Ada is adding two nursery rooms to its campus and building a sensory room for children with special needs.

Through the iFeed1 (I Feed One) Ministry in Malawi, ranked by the World Bank as the seventh poorest country in the world, First Ada has planted 16 churches, drilled eight water wells, fed widows and orphans, and operated a two-week educational cohort twice a year for 50 Malawi pastors in the network.

In September, Graves will take a team to Malawi to plant a church, drill a water well, conduct dental and medical clinics and hold pastors’ conferences. Graves funds the ministry through God’s grace and partnering churches. First Ada’s 2024 Vacation Bible School raised the $1,000 to drill the well.

“You go in, you drill a water well and you put a church next to it,” Graves said. “The whole entire village is benefitted. That’s our model. It’s been very effective.”

Graves has ministered in 19 countries and is undeterred in spreading the Gospel, driven by his own salvation.

“Before I was saved, I felt like I had no courage. I felt like I had no confidence. I felt like I had no place,” Graves said. “But when Christ saved me on April 1, 1992, I felt God gave me courage, God gave me a place, He gave me a purpose and I just knew what it was.

“I haven’t lost that. It’s been challenged and changed. We’ve had some bumps and bruises,” he said. “We have a daughter in heaven. We’ve had church conflict, but we’ve also had a lot of successes.”