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Joe Flora was born and raised in North Carolina. He earned degrees from Davidson College and Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In 1952, Flora moved to Greensboro to work for the First Presbyterian Church, where he served as associate pastor. He left the church in 1959 to continue his education before moving to Laurinburg, North Carolina, to serve as associate pastor at Laurinburg Presbyterian Church. He returned to Greensboro in 1962 and served as senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church until 1972.