Rev. Dean Ward of River Community Church has shifted from diving for golf balls to increasing the church’s mission

Serving an estimated 1,100 visiting police officers for the funeral service for deceased Brackenridge Police Chief Justin McIntyre was just another facet of River Community Church in New Kensington and its pastor, Dean Ward.

Ward, 56, of New Kensington, isn’t your typical pastor. He built a golf ball dunking company and wore a Steelers jersey to some of his sermons in the Church of God Christian denomination.

He could whip up a few hundred volunteers to clean up in town, help quickly dress and feed a local family going through hard times, or house dozens of teens for the summer from all over the country for local volunteer work.

Not a shy person in society, Ward visits local businesses that he uses as the backdrop for his weekly online sermons. This is in addition to his personal Sunday services at the spacious and spacious The River Church, formerly the Alcoa Clubhouse and Citizens School of Nursing. The church leases the space from the Citizens Public Foundation.

He said, “We as a church made the deliberate decision that we were not going to come into this community with our own hands.” We want to be a blessing. We want to help. We want to serve.”

Ward has little interest in painting Christians already immersed in worship.

“We wanted to reach people who were far from God, who didn’t go to church, who gave up. They are the ones Christ reached in his ministry,” Ward said.

“Taking people from other churches to grow yours is very offensive.”

The river is probably best known in the community for its free car show each summer which attracts over 1,000 people. Church members give away free food.

“Families can come and enjoy the day without paying a penny,” Ward said.

Nikki Magnelli, ministry coordinator at The River, said the church is partnering with other churches and nonprofits, among them Sonward Programs for Youth in New Kensington.

In the summer, the Week of Hope mission will send 60 to 100 teens from around the country for seven weeks to stay at the sprawling river facility to conduct services and volunteer in the community.

Magnelli and Ward both said “The river exists to be a light in a dark place”.

From diving to the river

Ward started The River 18 years ago in Penn State New Kensington, then, a few years later, began leasing the former Alcoa building from Citizens General.

A Delmont native, Ward began his ministry work as an associate pastor in Southern Illinois but left after 10 months.

“I was naïve, sheltered, immature and not ready for true service,” he said.

Ward returned to his college-era job as a professional diver retrieving golf balls on golf courses. From 1989 to 1996, he ran Dean’s Diving Service, hauling about 1 million golf balls a year from about 150 golf courses within a five-hour radius of Pittsburgh, he said. Most summers he had 11 people on the payroll.

“I loved it and had fun,” he said.

After the birth of his first child, his wife, Leslie, asked him if he was sure that this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

“There was a whisper in my soul,” Ward said. The spirit would ask, “Are you sure you want to devote your life to chasing 2-inch synthetic rubber balls?” “”

Ward credits his wife, Leslie Hetrick, a 1986 graduate of Valley High School, with turning his life around and bringing him to New Kensington. They met in 1991 and raised their three children in the city, with each child attending schools in the New Kensington-Arnold School District.

Since Ward grew up in a rural area where it was rare to see a spirit on his 6-mile trek to town, he was impressed by the urban community of New Kensington.

“I am very attached,” Ward said. “When I met Leslie, I fell in love with the community, the friendships, and the racial diversity. He just captured my soul.”

Swinging to knead

The head of the Knead Community Café, Kevin Budd, didn’t think much of the power of crowds until he met Ward a decade ago. Both men were recruiting volunteers to clean up rubbish in New Kensington.

“I had five people, and Dean had 200,” Boddy said.

Then more volunteers from The River arrived, bringing food to feed the volunteers.

“I was touched by the whole thing,” Boddy said. “How did he get so many people to come?”

When Bode bought the building for the Knead Community Café and needed to purchase it in early 2016, he hoped to gather 50 volunteers to help keep the cost down, as building a building can be expensive.

Ward and River showed up with 150 volunteers, and the building was destroyed in a single day. Some of these people are still volunteering at the café, Boddy said.

“They walk the path. They really do things outside their four walls,” Bodhi said. “They are wonderful people who want to serve the community. Dean has a servant’s heart.”

Kensington’s new mayor, Tom Guzo, said Ward, his family and The River support the city in many ways and are part of its revitalization.

“We can always count on Dean and The River to help with events,” said Guzzo. “He and the Church have been there to celebrate with us the wonderful times and to offer solace and grieve with us as he did recently with the tragic murder of Chief McIntire.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a writer for Tribune Review. You can contact Mary via email at or via Twitter .

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