25 years ago, the church found her

On the way to a job interview 25 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Alida Ward got lost. She was thrown off by the split in Old Academy Road and, frustrated, she decided to call it quits and head home.

Just as she was leaving to look for the highway, the white steeple of Greenfield Hill Congregational Church rose over the hills.

She called the experience as “the church finding her,” just as she describes almost every experience since. She is humble like that. Even reflecting on her life and her accomplishments, she frames them as all the good things that the church and Fairfield have done.

“Helping is easy,” she once said. “Being in need is a lot harder.”

Her kindness, although she remains modest, is not lost on others.

“You have fed the hungry, gone the extra mile, preached good news to the poor, and loved everyone ever more than you love yourself,” Mike Ruble said at a June 1 service commemorating Ward’s 25 years at the church. The sanctuary was packed, standing room only. Ward sat in the front row, with an honest look of surprise at every gift and bouquet showered upon her.

Her partner in pastorship and in life, the Rev. Dr. David Rowe, stood at the pulpit, unwavering in his reverence for his best friend and colleague.

“All the spirit, the grace, the joy, the incredible energy, the unconditional love that she brings to one part of her life she brings to every part of her life. She is genuine, real, all the time,” he said. “You might expect me to say this as her husband, but people told me all this about her before I even met her. It is just the way she is.”

Fifteen years ago, Ward and Rowe found themselves as divorced people working at the same church. As the minsters they were, they consoled and comforted each other through the hardships. Ten years later they realized they had fallen in love with each other, and on Jan. 15, 2011, they got married in that same church.

“I think it’s helpful for us as pastors to have been through some turmoil in our personal lives, because we know first-hand that life is not how you plan it to be,” Ward said. “It makes us more real.”

It also helps her that she knows first-hand happiness can be achieved following such turmoil.

The overwhelming celebration for Ward did not seem forced or orchestrated in any way. The room was filled with laughter the whole morning. Some prepared song parodies to express their love for her; others talked of the weird, funny things Ward has done to connect with the youth. They let discs fly from the steeple to see how far they’d go; they pulled pipes out of the organ to hear what sound they would make if someone blew through them. It paid off; the children love her.

Each child shared an anniversary message they prepared. But if that wasn’t enough to show how dedicated she has been, the celebration marked the dedication of the Rev. Alida Ward Youth Ministry Fund, established to help children all over Fairfield express their faith and work together for the common good.

She said she is committed to inspiring children because it was a youth group during her childhood that inspired her to help the world and follow her faith.

She followed that faith through Bryn Mawr College, Yale Divinity School and, eventually, Princeton Theological Seminary, where she received her doctorate of ministry. She shares that faith with the children when she takes a group of 225 to Appalachia to build and repair houses for the poor and when she takes a group to the slums of India to do like likewise.

Not only has she helped those abroad, but many here at home too. She serves on countless boards and committees working to abolish homelessness and domestic violence, and responding to disaster in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. She said she was originally inspired by the people of Fairfield to give so much. She said that she has never seen a town so devoted to education, service, faith and local government, that she has never met such “thoughtful, interested, engaged, people. It’s really challenged me to take me citizenship seriously and to think about what it means to be committed to a town and a community.”

She called it rare to see a suburban town that has a homeless shelter, food pantry, and so much outreach for people in need. She said she is most proud to be associated with Fairfield and her years of service as president and on the board of Operation Hope. She added that she hopes only, in the next 25 years, to put her community service out of business by perfecting its usefulness.

As the number of churches across America has been dwindling, Greenfield Hill Congregational has been growing and thriving. She prays many more will see the same beauty in church life as she does. She said that while life gets hard and messy, she promises that every Sunday there will always be a welcoming family, under a steeple atop a hill; that they will always be there to recharge visitors with laughter, love, and enthusiasm for the week ahead.

Laughter is crucial, Ward said. In her earlier years, she noticed people losing interest in sermons she admits she now finds boring. Now she shares stories and strives to connect her message to people’s lives.

She said she hopes that in her years as pastor, she has persuaded people away from the idea that Greenfield Hill Congregational is just an enclave of wealthy people up in the hills by encouraging everyone to do all they can for those in need. She recalled a rhetorical question that has always stuck with her: “If you were to be put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” She encourages all those to whom she minsters to mount as much evidence against themselves as they can and regardless of the mountains of good deeds, with her fingerprints all over, she still only considers herself a decent person.

So while she may talk of how lucky she is that the church found her, she will always be outnumbered by an ever-expanding congregation and community, many of whom consider themselves far luckier.

“For 25 years of unconditional love, unlimited energy, unbridled enthusiasm, and total dedication to God’s work, we give thanks,” Pam Dies said.

But just as Ward always refuses to accept a compliment, she offered this instead: “Thank you, Fairfield, for being an amazing place to live for 25 years.”

The Rev. Dr. Alida Ward cuts a cake celebrating her 25th anniversary at Greenfield Hill Congregational Church Sunday, June 1. Will Powers photo.

The Rev. Dr. Alida Ward cuts a cake celebrating her 25th anniversary at Greenfield Hill Congregational Church Sunday, June 1. Will Powers photo.

The Rev. Dr. David Rose and the Rev. Dr. Alida Ward met and married at Greenfield Hill Congregational Church. Will Powers photo.

The Rev. Dr. David Rose and the Rev. Dr. Alida Ward met and married at Greenfield Hill Congregational Church. Will Powers photo.

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