In a city accustomed to being abandoned, Chester Eastside Ministries opened its doors in 1985.
The Rev. Bernice Warren, who leads the ministry, in the main room of Chester Eastside Ministries. The facility is operated by the Presbytery of Philadelphia in a former church.
The division of the Presbytery of Philadelphia began offering food, clothing, counseling, and a variety of programs in a vacant and decrepit church building, itself a symbol of Chester’s plight.
Now, nearly three decades later, Chester Eastside has been forced into an uneasy retreat, curtailing its hours and longstanding outreach programs, and battling a phenomenon affecting nonprofits nationwide.
“People come knocking on our doors on Thursday and Fridays and we’re no longer here,” said the Rev. Bernice Warren, pastor/ director of Chester Eastside. “That’s an emptiness, I think, that the community has felt.”
The program, which serves 260 meals a week, has been shaken by financial pressures facing the presbytery, its churches, and the nonprofit organization that oversees the Chester ministry.Since 2008, financial support from the presbytery has declined year by year, dropping from $100,000 to $37,000. Some individual church donations also have declined, said Marie Dolton, the ministry’s treasurer.
Chester Eastside’s operating hours have been reduced from five days to three. A summer Peace in the Streets camp had to find another sponsor, and Chester Eastside may have to move from its old stone church — a remnant of Chester’s prosperous past that is costly to maintain.
The money pinch has forced board members to reevaluate the program’s mission, organization, and future. Similar soul-searching is underway at the John Gloucester House in Philadelphia, a ministry similar to the Chester program, said the Rev. Lucy Rupe, interim executive presbyter of the Philadelphia Presbytery. Financial retrenchment is common among many denominations and religious organizations coping with declining membership and financial resources, Rupe said.
What’s more, other charitable organizations in Chester and nationwide are confronting financial challenges as donors cut back, said Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University.
For Chester Eastside and its clients, the prospect of a weakened ministry in a community with acute needs is particularly troubling.
“If Chester Eastside wasn’t here, I would be in a bad way,” said Gladys F. Murray, 85, of Chester, who has relied on it for meals. “I’ve been coming here for years, and I really need it.”
In addition to meals and groceries, the ministry offers a GED program, afterschool tutoring, youth camps, and a mothers’ club.
The group also advocates for Chester-related issues. Warren and others have participated in sit-ins and lobbying trips to Harrisburg. The minister and board member Will Richan, a retired Temple University professor who moved to Chester from Philadelphia 10 years ago, were hauled away in a patrol car for refusing to end their public comments at a meeting about the troubled Chester Upland School District.
“We not just sitting here giving out stuff,” Warren said. “We’re trying to change the system.”
The ministry is based in a 117-year-old Gothic and Byzantine stone building that once housed one of the largest Presbyterian congregations in the nation. As Chester fell on hard times, the congregation diminished and the church closed. It reopened in 1985 as Chester Eastside Ministries.
To survive, along with possibly relocating, the ministry will have to find alternate sources of funding.
Board members hope to reestablish five-day services. A recent upswing in some church donations may help. On Monday, clients began lining up before the ministry opened its doors at 9:30 a.m.
Volunteers, including Kay McCready, who packs grocery bags, were already in their places. Students at the peace camp were planning a stage production about Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager slain by a neighborhood-watch volunteer in Florida, and Emmett Till, whose slaying in 1955 helped fuel the civil-rights movement. Robin Redfearn was preparing the meal of the day — hot dogs.
Redfearn has been volunteering for five years. She calls it “returning the favor.” Chester Eastside helped her when she lost her job as a live-in certified nursing assistant and became homeless.
The ministry helped her secure Social Security benefits and a place to live. At Chester Eastside, Redfearn helps feed people who are now in her former situation.
Those are the kinds of stories that Warren said she wants to continue to be a part of.
“We don’t know what the future will look like,” she said. “But our financial problem hasn’t [lessened] our commitment, it’s deepened it.”
Andre Smith, a law professor at Widener University, talks with teenagers who are part of the Peace Camp run by the Chester Eastside Ministries. Many nonprofits are feeling the funding pinch.