By Leslie Krowchenko
UPPER CHICHESTER >> Ministers typically preach thinking, being or doing sermons.
Rev. Bernice Warren personifies the last type.
The recently-retired pastor/director of Chester Eastside Inc., Warren’s 21 years at the helm were celebrated recently with a gala at the Ballrooms at Boothwyn. More than 225 family and church family members, high school and undergraduate friends, colleagues in the ministry and representatives of Chester Eastside joined to praise her service, announce the Cultural Arts Program to be created in her name and formally introduce her successor.
“When other people were designing and planning, Bernice would say, ‘We don’t have time for this – we need to be doing,” said Rev. Dr. Carroll Jenkins, interim pastor of Thomas M. Thomas Memorial Presbyterian Church. “She is the match that lights the fire that results in a raging flame.”The first African-American woman ordained as a minister in the Philadelphia Presbytery, Warren served as pastor and assistant pastor of churches in Baltimore and Wilmington before being appointed to Chester Eastside in 1995. Raised in one of Chester’s public housing projects, she was surprised to see the changes such as jobs lost to companies leaving the city, the proliferation of illegal drugs and gun violence.
Chester Eastside, founded 10 years earlier in Third Presbyterian Church, creates an accepting and inclusive environment for city residents. At its core is a food-service program providing more than 100,000 meals a year to community members. The organization compliments the service with GED, parenting and food and nutrition education, a youth summer camp, food outreach and emergency aid and referral and recently inaugurated a learning center which provides a safe and stimulating space for its growing afterschool program.
When the aging facility could no longer support the organization, Chester Eastside moved in 2013 to its current location at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It also changed its status to a not-for-profit 501 (c)(3).
“St. Paul’s welcomed them in and it has been really growing,” said Chester Eastside board member and retired Episcopal priest Rev. Bill North. “Bernice has a personality that completely welcomes you and takes you in.”
Warren did not want Chester Eastside to merely be a service agency, but “a strong voice and advocate.” She regularly attended meetings of the Chester Upland School District Board of Control, where police once removed her in handcuffs for refusing to sit during a protest, co-chairs the Delaware County chapter of Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based anti-gun violence group, and is active with Chester Watch, which addresses issues affecting immigrants.
“When she came back to her hometown, it was not to rest on her laurels, but as a woman on a mission,” said retired school psychologist Dr. Janice Hoffman Willis. “When state budget cuts resulted in a lack of school of supplies, Chester Eastside made sure the students had what they needed.”
Warren made certain the children had not just needs, but wants, by incorporating cultural arts education into Chester Eastside’s program. The new center will allow the youngsters to continue painting, dancing, writing and other forms of artistic expression.
Rev. Zuline Gray Wilkinson, a social worker and second-career minister with a Master of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania and Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, was introduced as “the new face of Chester Eastside leadership.” Wilkinson stood with CEI board president John Mackey as he presented Warren with a plaque honoring her remarkable service.
“I wish you could be in my place and feel what I feel,” said Warren. “It has been a wonderful journey with my Lord and I am grateful to God for the time.”