Three things you immediately recognize about Jacques DeGraff: his personable demeanor; his quick wit; and impeccable style. He speaks and moves in a smooth, seemingly effortless manner. He will take a compliment easily, but tell you straight out any gifts he might have are from God, and he credits his mother and his wife for helping polish and refine those gifts.
Who is Jacques DeGraff? First and foremost, he is Reverend Jacques Andre DeGraff. He studied under and was ordained by Reverend Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, where he has served on the pastoral staff since 1998.
DeGraff’s professional bio and Google say he’s an outspoken advocate for economic and social justice for communities of color; a tireless advocate for Minority And Women Owned Businesses; a leader in the Black Church initiative to combat COVID in NYC; on the list of New York’s Black Power 100; a founding member of Harlem Week; a member of One Hundred Black Men, NYC; board member and/chair of several organizations; a Fox News contributor; and a founding member of two public high schools: Eagle Academy for Young Men and Bronx School for Law, Government & Justice (Urban Assembly).
However, if you ask DeGraff who he is, he will tell you, “I’m the firstborn, male child in a Caribbean family of four sons. At 13, I had already experienced the spotlight bug and the message bug as the first Black Santa Claus in our elementary school play.” He continued, “I like to think, in hindsight, that God planted the message seed in me from the beginning. My mother puts it another way: she says I was ‘born feet first and been running off at the mouth.’ But I like to believe that He gave me something to say.” Humble and extremely proud of his family, Rev DeGraff believes in giving credit where it’s due. He chuckled. “Sometimes I say I’m the black sheep of the family because my brothers have earned distinction in each of their endeavors. I may be the best known, but they are the bright, shining stars.”
I was raised Episcopal,” DeGraff explained. He was in Atlanta attending a program for gifted students with nothing to do on a Sunday morning. “One of our instructors had pity on some of us… She said, ‘Why don’t you come to my church and worship with us?’ We got to the church and there was a great air of excitement. Her father was the pastor, so we sat in the pastor’s pew. The place was packed. And the guest speaker on that Sunday was her brother, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” I could hear the reverence in Rev. DeGraff’s voice as he recalled the experience. “And in that moment, I heard God speaking through a man, talking to my heart, and the Baptist seed was planted. I was never the same after that.”
Despite the appearance of things flowing smoothly in DeGraff’s life and career, recognizing and acting on his calling didn’t go according to plan. He thought becoming a deacon would be the apex of his spiritual journey. He recalled, “Every door that I went to closed and I thought when I gave my heart to the Lord, that it would be blue skies and green lights, but the opposite happened.” He applied for a job on Wall Street. “I’m meeting with Mr. Big and… about three minutes in he said, ‘I don’t think we have a fit.’ And I thought, how can that be? If we don’t have a fit today, then we didn’t have a fit in the other four meetings. Why am I here?” DeGraff took it hard. “I was bewildered and crushed, and I went to the Baptist Ministers’ Conference and confided in a friend… She said, ‘If God is closing doors…’—and as soon as she said it, I knew I was supposed to do this.” He continued, “I understood my call. I went to the church. I began the formal process in the Baptist tradition and scheduled my opening sermon, my trials. And usually about 25 people (15 of whom are family members) come. One hundred-fifty people came… and I preached on Lazarus and trading in your graveyard clothes. And on that night, someone gave their heart to the Lord; and I’ve never looked back.”
Active in social justice since his college days, DeGraff’s calling to the cloth made use of his organizational skills and expanded his opportunities to help others and change things for the better. Though Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker ordained him, DeGraff was unaware of Walker’s work with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as his chief of staff. Walker soon made him his social justice minister.
On a lighter note, I mentioned his sense of style. “My mother always said I should look presentable,” he said. Revealing that during his early days in New York, he didn’t have the means to buy the latest fashions and trendy styles, he figured out that if he wore nicer shirts, his suits would look that much newer and more stylish, “Colleagues wouldn’t recognize today’s suit as the same one from yesterday.” He began designing his own dress shirts and having them custom made, and still does so more than thirty years later. His wife continued where his mother left off, making sure he is always presentable. “I go through an approval process,” he laughed. “I do alright, but I value my wife’s approval.”
DeGraff has seen and done so much—it seems as though he has led multiple lives. He is a respected and accomplished businessman in the construction field; the clergy leader for the Choose Healthy Life initiative in New York City; a mentor for students at one of the schools he founded, The Eagle Academy; a beloved husband who still refers to his better half as “my bride” after 49 years of marriage; and a proud father. He’s a man whose business card has his contact information and a picture of an eagle on one side, and Isaiah 40:31 on the other. He’s definitely one of a kind, and his resume and the breadth of his work render him undefinable, which is oddly apropos.
I asked about his childhood aspirations. The native New Yorker chuckled and answered, “I aspired to be somebody in New York City. I didn’t know what I aspired to be or do, didn’t have a title—it didn’t matter. I just wanted to make a difference in New York City.”