Rev. Bernice Warren was born in Chester, Pa., on March 26, 1952, and died in her hometown on July 13, 2018. She grew up in the city’s Ruth L. Bennett Homes public housing project. A 1970 graduate of Chester High School, Warren earned her Bachelor’s degree in education from Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pa., and her Masters of Divinity degree from Johnson C. Smith Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Ga.
Warren was strongly influenced by her mother’s advocacy. It was her mother whose teachings on the importance of addressing the needs of the underprivileged helped shape Warren’s lifelong ministry of justice. Warren would eventually become known as one of Chester’s most relentless advocates for social justice.
Warren attended Thomas M. Thomas Memorial Presbyterian Church in Chester, where she was also impacted by the advocacy efforts of two of its pastors, the Rev. Dr. Carroll D. Jenkins and the Rev. Dr. Johnnie Monroe. “They truly exemplified how the church can be instrumental in changing the life of the community” said Warren, recalling a time when one of the pastors opened the church to educators to teach children during a prolonged teacher strike.
After earning her degree in education in 1974, Warren taught high school equivalency classes in Chester. A few years later in 1980 she became the first African American woman ordained as a minister in the Philadelphia Presbytery after which she served as the Assistant Pastor for Outreach at the Knox Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Md., until 1984.
Warren then went on to serve for ten years as pastor of First and Olivet Presbyterian Church, located in an underserved area of Wilmington, Del.
Her appointment to Pastor and Executive Director of Chester Eastside Ministries by the Philadelphia Presbytery to replace the Rev. Tom Torosian as Director and Pastor occurred in 1995. The appointment came with many challenges, one of which was to rebuild the community outreach and services programs.
But when she returned to Chester, Warren was surprised at how much the city had changed. Job loss was prevalent after companies left the small city along with the proliferation of illegal drugs and gun violence. Noticing that Chester lacked a strong voice in the community, Warren stepped up to fill the void. She began attending scheduled meetings led by the state-appointed Chester Upland School District Board of Control. She was once led out in handcuffs by police for refusing to sit down as she protested the proposal to remove the limit on the number of students attending charter schools. Warren believed removing those limitations would drain state funding for the Chester Upland public schools.
Not deterred by the financial constraints under which the Chester Upland schools operated, Warren and colleagues raised money to help supplement supplies commonly provided by teachers at their expense. Fundraising efforts over time made possible the purchase of more than $10,000 worth of school supplies.
Warren also used her voice to speak out against gun violence. She joined in the fight in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death of Michael Brown. Warren along with Fran Stier, a member of Ohev Shalom Synagogue in Nether Providence Township, Pa., also co-chaired the Delaware County chapter of Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based, anti-gun violence group that campaigns against gun trafficking. She also remained active with Chester Watch, a group dedicated to addressing issues affecting immigrants.
Her life-long ministry of fighting for social justice extended beyond her community as she led missionary delegations to Pearlington, Miss., following Hurricane Katrina, and Haiti before and after the earthquake. Warren made at least 10 trips to Haiti to help deliver medical and school supplies, food and clothing to a clinic and school operated by Marline Olivier in the last 14 years of her life. It was always a dream of Warren’s to expand that mission because she believed Haiti was challenged by the same issues of poverty and high prevalence of disease as her birth city of Chester.
Warren also made several education trips to focal points of the slave trade industry in Senegal and South Africa with Johnson C. Smith Seminary Professor Dr. Marsha Snulligan Haney. Warren’s vision of expanding her ministry on a global scale took her throughout the Caribbean, Ethiopia, Egypt, Guatemala, Brazil, Cuba, and France. But ultimately, Warren saw herself becoming more active in Chester, in the U.S., in Haiti, and in Africa.
When she was not advocating for justice, leading missionary delegations to disaster-stricken areas, or operating Chester Eastside Ministries, Warren focused her attention on the children in her community. She loved children and often said she “would do anything to help a child in need.” With the monetary assistance from the Philadelphia Presbytery and donations from various churches and organizations, Warren organized trips to the beach, zoo, ski resorts, campgrounds, and other activities that most families could not afford for their children.
Warren retired at the end of 2016 from the position she held for more than 20 years as Pastor/Executive Director of Chester Eastside, Inc., formerly Chester Eastside Ministries.
Rev. Bernice Warren was a minister, daughter, sister, mother, aunt, cousin, niece, friend, colleague, leader, and social justice warrior who never tired, never stopped, and never gave up the fight.
“Jesus didn’t ask people for their church credentials in order to serve them, and neither do we.”
— Rev. Bernice Warren