The Rev. Bernice Warren has been pastor and director of Chester Eastside Inc., formerly Chester Eastside Ministries, for 21 years. She plans to retire in December. PATTI MENGERS — DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA
By Patti Mengers, Delaware County Daily Times
Posted: 07/31/16, 9:00 PM EDT | Updated: 1 week, 5 days ago
The Rev. Bernice Warren, right, pastor and director of Chester Eastside Inc., formerly Chester Eastside Ministries, chats with Deeanna Parks, who has volunteered at Chester Eastside’s food and clothing center for at least 15 years. PATTI MENGERS — DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA
Eleven o’clock Monday morning and the energy is pumping in the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in the 300 block of East Ninth Street, site of Chester Eastside Inc.
Along the far wall, bushel baskets of fresh produce and bags of bread create a cornucopia effect as men and women of all colors, creeds and ages line-up for food to bring home to their families.
The group’s original home in the Third Presbyterian Church of Chester about a block away had begun to crumble and Warren, who has been pastor and director of Chester Eastside since 1995, had to find a new space for the organization and it’s approximately 10 social service programs she has cultivated over the last two decades with the help of a small staff and volunteers.
“How ya’ doin’? Hey girl!” says Warren this particular July Monday as she greets the Chester residents who avail themselves of the more than 100,000 meals a year provided by the non-profit organization.
It is one of the parts of her job that she will miss come December, when she plans to retire.
“I’ve loved being here and doing what I do. I feel at home. It’s a real blessing to come back to Chester and have God use me this way. I love every minute. It brings me much joy,” said the 64-year-old Chester native.
The second of three daughters of Lillian Warren, she grew up in the Ruth L. Bennett Homes public housing project and attended Thomas M. Thomas Memorial Presbyterian Church, where she was influenced by the advocacy efforts of two of the pastors, the Rev. Carroll D. Jenkins and the Rev. Johnnie Monroe.
“They made me understand how the church can be instrumental in changing the life of the community,” said Warren, who remembers one of the pastors opening the church to educators wanting to teach children when they couldn’t attend school because of a prolonged teachers’ strike.
She was also influenced by her now-88-year-old mother who she remembers “had no problem speaking out against injustice.”
“You can’t just sit in church when you see poverty, violence, injustice and schools collapsing around us,” noted Warren. “Jesus spoke to this issue. He didn’t just stay in the temple. My ministry is a ministry of justice and I’m very clear on that.”
A 1970 graduate of Chester High School, Warren earned her undergraduate degree in education from Kutztown State College, now Kutztown University, in Berks County and her master’s of divinity degree from Johnson C. Smith Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Ga. In between she taught high school equivalency classes in Chester. In 1980 Warren became the first African-American woman ordained a minister in the Philadelphia Presbytery.
She served as the assistant pastor for outreach at the Knox Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Md., until 1984, underwent chaplaincy training at Delaware State Hospital, then served as pastor of First and Olivet Presbyterian Church in an impoverished area of Wilmington, Del., for 10 years. In 1995 she was appointed by the Philadelphia Presbytery to replace the Rev. Tom Torosian as director and pastor of Chester Eastside Ministries that was founded in 1985.
“They graciously allowed us to come here after we couldn’t maintain our building,” explained the Rev. Bernice Warren, referring to the pastor and congregation of St. Paul’s who have been hosting Chester Eastside Inc. for about four years.
“The fact that I was going to be in the community dealing with people through social service and social action, it was everything about my ministry rolled into one,” said Warren.
Because the position had been vacant for several months, Warren had to rebuild programs. In addition to the food and clothing programs and summer youth camp, services offered by Chester Eastside now include emergency aid and referral, after-school education and tutoring and education programs in parenting, high school equivalency and food and nutrition. But one of the most important elements of her job, noted Warren, has been to provide a voice for the people of Chester.
“I never wanted Chester Eastside to be just a service agency. Chester has enough service agencies. I don’t want to be just a service provider but to be a strong voice and advocate,” said Warren.
When she returned to Chester, the minister was surprised how it had changed since the days of her youth in terms of jobs lost to companies leaving the small city, the proliferation of illegal drugs and gun violence. But her greatest impetus to become heard in the community was when she realized the sorry state of Chester Upland schools that have been under state control now for more than 20 years because of poor academic and fiscal performance.
One day, when the minister visited Chester High School after she heard a fight had erupted, she was horrified to see that one of the girls she knew from Chester Eastside programs had been maced by police.
“They kept changing superintendents and there was a lot of discord, so a group of us started meeting the children at school and greeting them so they felt maybe the adults had not abandoned them,” said Warren.
She also started regularly attending meetings led by the state-appointed Chester Upland School District Board of Control and was once led out in handcuffs by police for refusing to sit down when protesting the proposed removal of a cap on the number of students attending charter schools because she felt that would drain much-needed funding for public schools.
“I thought, ‘I’ve sat down long enough, maybe I’ll just stand.’ It really galled me that people from the outside were telling me to sit down because I was expressing my concern about Chester schools,” said Warren, who also once led a few verses of “We Shall Not Be Moved” at a school board meeting.
She is proud of how Chester students such as Sarah Poole, who is now a Yale University faculty member, have succeeded despite the school district being “broken.”
Warren’s voice has also been strong against gun violence that so far this year has been responsible for the deaths of at least 15 young black males in Chester. One was only 14. With Fran Stier, Warren is co-chair of the Delaware County chapter of Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based anti-gun violence group that campaigns against what members describe on their website as the highly developed illegal trade of gun trafficking made possible through “criminal entrepreneurs, traffickers, the straw buyers who stand in for them to make their bulk purchases and gun dealers who look the other way and enjoy the profits.”
“Her passion for social justice will always be an inspiration to me,” noted Stier.
A member of Ohev Shalom Synagogue in Nether Providence for more than 30 years, Stier has known Warren for about a decade through delivering hundreds of Thanksgiving food baskets from the synagogue for families in need to Chester Eastside.
“Rev. Warren has kept these programs going through many difficulties and funding shortages, through sheer force of will,” said Stier.
Because of funding cuts, Chester Eastside Ministries separated from the Philadelphia Presbytery about 18 months ago, said Warren. Although it still receives some funds from the Philadelphia Presbytery and has received small city and county grants, the organization relies mainly on donations from churches, synagogues and corporations, grants from foundations and volunteer support from the Chester Boys and Girls Club, Strath Haven and Sun Valley high schools, Swarthmore College and Widener University.
In her retirement, Warren hopes to become more focused in her advocacy and not spread so thin. She announced her December 2016 exit last fall so as to give board members time to find her replacement.
“I think ministry is a 24/7 job because you’re always on call,” noted Warren.
She lives in Chester with her mother whom she cares for with the assistance of her sister, Eva Warren Henry, an elementary school teacher, and her daughter, Kearni Warren, a production manager and series host for Kieserman Media. Her other sister, Shirley Warren Douglas, who is now deceased, was a music teacher.
In the last 15 years, the minister has made about 10 trips to Haiti where she has delivered medical and school supplies, food and clothing to a clinic and school operated by Maureen Olivier. Warren hopes perhaps to expand that mission in Haiti which she noted has many of the same issues arising from poverty and disease that Chester does, but no government support. She has also made educational trips to many countries that have experienced slavery, with Johnson C. Smith Seminary professor, Marsha Snulligan Haney.
Warren hopes to continue them and also “maybe do a little relaxing.”
“The way I see it, I’m on a new journey. Where I’m going, I don’t know yet, but I’m going,” said the minister.