When Vanessa Oliver Ward asked a friend to join her at a Sunday church service about 40 years ago, little did she know the invitation would lead to a 37-year marriage and a partnership that led to one of the largest Baptist congregations in the Dayton region.
Daryl and Vanessa Ward, who met decades ago in Washington, D.C. are retiring this year after serving for 31 years as pastors of Omega Baptist Church.
Today marks the first Easter Sunday their son Joshua Ward will lead the holiday service as senior pastor-elect at Omega’s Salem Avenue church. Instead of preaching from the pulpit, the Wards will be in the audience.
“We’ll be here,” Vanessa said. “He’ll be working but we won’t. We’re really blessed that he’s pretty phenomenal. The church is really embracing his leadership.”
The couple, who are each in their early 60s, plan to celebrate their retirement Sept. 22 at the west-Dayton church and their son will be installed that afternoon as the house of worship’s new leader.
In the more than three decades the Wards have run the church, Omega purchased its current church on Salem Avenue, grew to a membership that once topped 4,000, launched its own community development corporation, and acquired the grounds of the United Theological Seminary when the seminary moved to its current Denlinger Road home.
When the Wards began their service at Omega, the congregation had around 100 members. It now has between 1,500 and 2,000 members.
While they are preparing to end their direct roles in leading Omega, both say they are not the kind of people who stay retired.
The Omega Development Corporation, a nonprofit created by the church, has several projects in the works. Vanessa will continue to work for the corporation, which broke ground in March building an 81-unit apartment community for adults aged 55 and older.
The community will be called the Omega Senior Lofts. It is a $13-million project expected to be finished next summer. The apartments will be located on the United Theological Seminary’s former campus in the heart of the Dayton View Triangle neighborhood. Also locating there will be Omega’s future Hope Center for Families which will provide training, education, child care and other community activities.
The Wards say they plan to stay involved, whether it’s through the corporation’s projects or other community activities.
“Good is always so much more powerful than evil. It just is…Somebody has to keep speaking the good and that’s the place of the church,” Daryl said. “You have to keep pushing the good and keep fighting for good and we’re going to continue to do that in retirement, whatever that is.”
‘A sense of humor’
The Wards both graduated from the College of Wooster in northern Ohio in 1979, though they didn’t know each other as undergrads.
Each then headed to Washington, D.C. shortly after graduation. Daryl went to law school at Georgetown School of Law while Vanessa attended Johns Hopkins school of Advanced International Studies. In Washington they started a relationship and married on March 27, 1982, Daryl said.
The couple came to Dayton in 1986 when Daryl accepted a job as director of admissions and dean of black church ministries at the United Theological Seminary. Having previously lived in Washington, D.C. and then Rochester, N.Y., the Wards found Dayton to be a smaller community than they were accustomed to.
Dayton is a short distance from where they each grew up —Daryl is a Cincinnati native and Vanessa is from Columbus - and they sayd they did not plan to stay in the area for more than five years. Then, Daryl was asked to be a pastor part-time at Omega.
“God has a sense of humor,” Vanessa joked.
Being a pastor is widely known in the religious community as a role that also requires a big sacrifice from one’s family, Daryl said. He was leaning against the idea of agreeing to work for the church until the day Vanessa helped him realize it might be their calling.
“We were turning out of the driveway (one day) and Vanessa said: ‘Daryl, you don’t think that God could be calling us here do you?’” Daryl said. “That was my hesitation and God had her bring it to me.”
‘Just good people’
The Wards have made a difference in the lives of many in the Dayton region.
One person they helped was Tony Hall, the former congressman who served as an ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture.
In 1996, Hall’s son Matt died of leukemia at the age of 15. Hall said the Wards helped him cope with his son’s death spiritually but were also there for his family after the tragedy.
“They were there for us and they were just a good shoulder to lean on…They were just good people to be able to talk to and be able to express yourself to,” Hall said. “I can’t say enough good things about them.”
That kind of friendship and compassion is something friends and one-time opponents have encountered.
Darryl Fairchild is the manager of chaplain services at Dayton Children’s Hospital and narrowly defeated Daryl Ward in a May 2018 special election for a spot on the Dayton City Commission.
Fairchild had known the Wards for several years and Daryl had been a mentor to him when he was studying at United Theological Seminary. After the seminary, Fairchild continued to work with Daryl and Vanessa through community projects including a 2008 effort to encourage people to vote.
When Fairchild found out Daryl Ward was planning to run for a seat on the city commission, he said the thought about whether or not he wanted to go against someone he looked up to as a mentor. So, Fairchild called Daryl to talk about it.
“We just had a conversation about it and I came out of that conversation knowing regardless of what we do we were going to do it in a respectful way and we were going to have a relationship afterward,” Fairchild said.
‘Steadfast in their faith and community’
The impact the Wards have had on the community is hard to boil down to a single thing, people who know them said. But, their work is known throughout the city as having made an impact.
“I remember when Daryl and Vanessa came to Dayton and I watched them grow,” said Rhine McLin, a former Dayton mayor and state legislator. “They have been steadfast in their commitment to one another and steadfast in their faith and community. Period.”
In 1999, the Wards wanted to turn their sermons into action, so they started Omega Community Development Corporation. The nonprofit organization is focused on youth and family development, the economy and access to employment and businesses, according to its website.
For years, the corporation has partnered with Dayton Public Schools on their Neighborhood School Centers. Omega Community Development Corp. has taken over the neighborhood school center at Fairview Elementary and is working to build up the program.
Omega received a grant to offer an after-school program at Fairview last year. The program, called Scholars of Hope, provides 75 students with two hours of math or reading instruction a day, as well as enrichment activities such as chess, martial arts or music. It also provides a hot meal for every participating student provided by Dayton Cooks.
It’s that kind of work that has made Daryl and Vanessa part of the “overall fabric of the community,” said DPS board member Robert Walker.
“It’s been a privilege to work with them over the years,” Walker said. “The role they’re playing may change but being respected leaders in the community like the Wards are, I think their wisdom will be sought and it will continue to shape the health of this community.”
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