It is no coincidence that the Rev. Stephen Harding, new pastor at Grace Episcopal Church, finds himself handling the toughest duties a minister can handle. He asks for them.

Serving in New York city for most of his life, Reverend Harding was among the first to respond when firefighters and emergency services personnel needed support in the aftermath of the 9/11, and later served as one of the fire department chaplains.

He responded to most every emergency in the city over the past 15 years and quite literally wrote the book on how clergy can most effectively respond to disasters.

During his time as a director of pastoral care at a large New York hospital, he supported children on the pediatric cancer floors, because he didn’t want others on the pastoral staff to have to do it. Dealing with so much death has given him a rare perspective on life.

“It was a remarkable gift to be part of that,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s a very fine line between this life and whatever is next. I try to do things that are life enhancing and life affirming. I know that sounds like cliche. But what else are you going to do? If somebody cuts me off while I’m driving, not that that would happen here,” he said with a laugh, “I’m not going to get upset about it. At the end, so what. A child dying, I’ll get more worked up about that.”

Reverend Harding arrived on the Vineyard with his family in early November and found the congregation from Grace Church waiting with open arms.

“The rectory is half full of unopened boxes,” he said. “It seemed like the entire parish came to help unload the truck. It was amazing. There were at least 30 people all wanting to help.”

A self-described “New York city kid,” he grew up in Manhattan but spent significant parts of his life in New England. He is a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Colby College in Maine. He went on to earn post-graduate degrees from Union Theological Seminary and General Theological Seminary, both in New York city. His most recent pastoral post was as the five-year interim rector at St. Peter’s Church in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

His great-grandfather Chester Harding owned a home in Vineyard Haven and he has been a summer visitor to Martha’s Vineyard for 50 years. It was the connection to the Island that prompted him to explore the possibility of leading Grace Church.

“I would not have moved except for somewhere like here,” he said. “I was happy at St. Peter’s. I was happy at the fire department.”

For the most of the last decade, he, his wife and their son have divided their time between Philadelphia, where she was a professor at United Lutheran Seminary, and New York. The position at Grace Church, he said, seemed like the logical next step in his professional career and the right choice for his family.

“In terms of our family it’s a really logical next step,” he said. “We lived for nine years in two cities. It’s just time for us to be together, and live in one place. I can’t tell you how nice it is to know that I’m going to have dinner with them at the end of the day.”

While he looks forward to a new way of life away from the big city spotlight, he has not lost his penchant for tackling the toughest problems. He is already eager to join the efforts to tackle homelessness, addiction and suicide on the Island.

“My hope for Grace is that we will be a force for good not only for our congregants but for Vineyard Haven and for the Island, and for beyond,” he said. “There’s a problem, let’s work together to fix it. Let’s make somebody’s life just a little bit better. Not in an imperialistic way, but in a supportive, serving kind of way.”

He presided over his first service at Grace Church last Sunday. He said that first sermon was tough because it sets expectations, but he wanted the packed church to know that he and his family were delighted to be on the Island, and he was honored to be their priest. He said it felt a lot like coming home.

“You couldn’t ask for a more enthusiastic welcome,” Reverend Harding said. “It feels to me like the congregation has been waiting for me to get here, and I’ve been waiting for them. Now we can do things together.”