Wednesday June 19, 2013PROFILE OF THE WEEK
Rev. Bernice Warren‘We serve anybody who needs us.’ by Bette Alburger DCNN Correspondent
Dynamic and dedicated… that describes the Rev. Bernice Warren, pastor and director of Chester Eastside Ministries, a vital part of a struggling Delaware County community that brings together residents of Chester and the surrounding suburbs. Since 1995, it’s been responding to human needs by providing everything from food and clothing to an afterschool education and recreation program for area children.
Rev. Warren grew up in the same public housing project in Chester where her mother still lives. So it was like coming home 18 years ago, she says, when she gave up her pastorate at a Presbyterian church in Wilmington to take on her present position. It’s the only full-time post; there are four part-time staffers, and those who run various programs are part time as well.
The bulk of the work in meeting Chester Eastside’s mission is done by more than 200 volunteers. They come, week after week, from as close as the immediate neighborhood to as far away as Washington, D.C. Many churches in the Philadelphia Presbytery, as well as those in other denominations in Delaware County and elsewhere, support the work of Chester Eastside Ministries.
For instance, the interdenominational “Feast from the Garden” project at Princeton Presbyterian in Springfield – now in its second year – grows and provides fresh produce for Chester residents via the agency.
The agency also partners with a wide range of institutions, such as Widener University, Swarthmore College, the Food Trust, the Delaware County Food Assistance Network and the University of Pennsylvania. In the past, it has collaborated with Habit for Humanity, the Chester Upland School District, Neumann University and Palmer Theological Seminary.
Chester Eastside is located in a stately but aging church building on East 9th Street that once housed one of the largest Presbyterian congregations this side of the Mississippi River. Today, it brings people from all backgrounds together to work toward a common purpose: meeting basic human needs, expanding horizons and helping people realize their full potential. Distinctions of race and social class tend to melt away as people from Chester and surrounding communities work together to nurture the soul as well as the body. In so doing, they gain an appreciation of each other and learn from each other.
Although the agency is affiliated with the Presbytery of Philadelphia, Warren emphasizes that it serves “anybody who needs us.”
“Jesus didn’t ask people for their church credentials in order to serve them, and neither do we. We take quite literally the Biblical imperative found in Luke 4, verses 18-19, that says in part, ‘He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor… proclaim freedom for the prisoners … to set the oppressed free’,” she said.
In addition to food and clothing ministries, Chester Eastside offers adult literacy and GED preparation, counseling in response to personal grief, classes on nutrition, support groups, an afterschool program and a summer day camp. There’s a Parents First program to enable parents to help their young children succeed in school.
Also, Warren and some board members are working to help turn Chester Upland School District around by attending meetings and voicing concerns.
Horizons are expanded through bringing visitors from South Africa and the Congo to help local people get in touch with their roots and see themselves in relation to a wider world. Chester Eastside has reached out to victims of natural disasters and is helping college and university students develop a better understanding of Chester’s challenges and potential.
In working for a more just and peaceful world, the agency advocates for quality education for all and an end to violence in the streets.
“Feeding, clothing, education and the rest are our ways to bring about peace and justice in Chester,” said Warren.
She noted her life has been greatly influenced by her loving family, her church, her education and Swarthmore College’s Upward Bound program. She said the federally funded education enrichment program was so important to her that she stayed with it until she graduated from college.
After graduating from Chester High School, she went to Kutztown State College (now university) and received her secondary education degree in 1974. Then for two years she was a GED instructor for a Delaware County job training program. It was a satisfying job, she said, but she wanted to make a larger impact on lives.
She said that as a child of the ’60s, she was greatly troubled by racial unrest and injustice. She’d heard Jesus was a liberator and how the Gospel could transform lives and communities. This led her to enroll in Johnson and Smith Theological School in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1977.
“There I became really excited about the Gospel, about the Jesus of liberation and what God was calling people to do in the community,” she said.
She received her Master of Divinity degree in 1980 and that same year became the first African American woman to be ordained as a minister by the Presbytery of Philadelphia.
“It was not easy to be black and a single parent in those days,” said Warren, whose daughter is now 35. “But I felt called by God and I never looked back.”
But looking ahead is becoming increasingly difficult because of a reduction in funding from the Philadelphia Presbytery. Although programming is continuing as vigorously as ever, Chester Eastside now operates only three days a week to save money.
“Funding is dwindling, so we’re forced to raise more of our own funds. It’s a huge financial challenge,” said Will Richan, one of ten members of the board of directors. The longest serving member, he was on the committee that chose Warren as director.
Meanwhile, led by the board, key Chester Eastside stakeholders are gearing up to develop a strategic plan with the help of an outside consulting firm, There’s no reason to believe the ministry that’s been so important to Chester is going out of business. On the contrary, Richan said, it’s upbeat as it faces an uncertain future. As he put it, the words “give up” dropped out of Chester Eastside’s vocabulary long ago.
“Chester’s been dealing with adversity for decades. We’re keeping on keeping on. It beats the alternatives by a mile,” he said. Warren smiled in agreement.
(Much needed donations may be made through the United Way’s donor option or c/o Chester Eastside Ministries, P.O. Box 36, Chester, PA 19013 or online at www.chestereastside.org.)