Chester >> The Rev. Bernice Warren was known for being a strong-willed, truth-telling woman who strived to make the Chester community the best it could be. For 20 years she served as the pastor and director of the Chester Eastside Inc., a non-profit group that encourages city residents to achieve their goals and promote peace and social justice.
Warren was an advocate for public education and had a strong rapport with the community youth to empower them to be confident in themselves. To prove it, she once allowed herself to be taken out of a Chester Upland School District Board of Control meeting – the district was under state control — when she adamantly protested lifting the cap on the number of students who could attend charter schools, knowing it would drain local school resources.
This trailblazer of strong community and spiritual convictions died on July 13, leaving behind a commitment of positive activism that will be carried on by others.
“Her shoes will be hard to fill and she’s going to be sorely missed,” said Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland Monday afternoon.
According to a biography on the Chester Eastside website, Warren was a 1970 graduate of Chester High School who would obtain degrees from Kutztown University and a Master’s of Divinity from Johnson C. Smith Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. She would teach high school equivalency classes in Chester before attaining pastoral duties at congregations in Baltimore and Wilmington.
She returned to Chester in the mid-‘90s to be pastor of what was then called Chester Eastside Ministries. Warren was tasked to rebuild the organization’s programs and to not try to be another “service agency” to the city. In viewing how much the city she grew up in has changed upon her return, she used the poor performance of the Chester Upland School District to make herself heard in the community.
Warren worked at Chester Eastside until she retired from the organization in 2016, at which time the Rev. Zuline G. Wilkinson was brought on board as executive director. The two worked closely together for a couple of months for a smooth transition between Warren’s end and Wilkinson’s start.
“When I met her, it was very clear that she was a person of strong determination, (with) a strong point of view and a doggedness about seeing right prevail,” said Wilkinson. “She welcomed me as someone who had not come from Chester, as someone with a long history in human services. She welcomed me with open arms.
“We chatted frequently; she was always willing to help me.”
Wilkinson had come to Chester with many careers in a number of cities in the Northeast region of the country and said Chester Eastside provided a perfect blend of qualities that she wanted in a position. Like Warren, Wilkinson said she was called to this line of work by God, and it went beyond the value of altruism that comes with working at a center like Chester Eastside.
As contemporaries in ministry, Wilkinson said Warren would tell her exactly what she needed to hear about the city, especially to listen to what people are saying and understanding them. Ultimately, Wilkinson said Warren always strived to show the good that lives in Chester.
“She was just an untiring advocate for the people of this city. She saw them as strong, determined, resilient,” said Wilkinson. “She had nothing negative to say about her city. She really felt that there was opportunity for change, for growth in the Chester community. That’s how she lived her life.
“She felt that change was possible when you reached out and you touched the lives of children and families. She felt that the horizons of children in Chester were limitless, and so she had a positivism about Chester that was unshakable.”
Mayor Kirkland complimented Warren for the services and programs she helped provide to the city youth, especially educational opportunities with after school and tutoring programs. He said that she was a strong-willed person who was confident in her abilities to reach people.
“(There was a) willingness to go after those things she believed in, willingness to stand firm on values of education, willingness to stand firm on values of religion, (and) her belief in God and her commitment to make sure the young people had an opportunity to do better,” said Kirkland. “Bernice was one of the ministers and pastors in the community who was very highly respected, not just by myself, but others.”
Kirkland went on to say that Warren was always herself and never a phony. He said she created a positive change that was needed and a change that would be instilled in others to give them the confidence they needed.
It will be hard in Chester without Warren, Kirkland added, but in the spiritual real God has a purpose for everyone, and Warren has fulfilled her purpose and is going home to her reward.
“She will be sorely missed, and her purposed has been fulfilled.”
“Even with all of that, her activism and focus on justice and truth-telling to those who are in power, she was a warm, compassionate, caring person and I called her a friend,” said Wilkinson.
Wilkinson added, “The work that we do is very necessary to make our community a better one and we plan to keep going. That’s a message to keep going. Chester Eastside has continued in the legacy of Rev. Warren and her predecessor. We’ve been here for a while and we expect to be able to continue.
“I can say unreservedly, she was loved. We loved her and we miss her and we were all inspired by her.”
A celebration for Rev. Bernice Warren is scheduled for July 25 at St. Luke’s Community Christian Church, 320 Tilghman St. in Chester. The viewing will be held from 9 a.m. to 10:45 a.m., with the service to begin at 11 a.m.
In honor of Rev. Warren, Chester Eastside will be closed on July 25 for staff, volunteers and program participants to participate in the service.