When the Rev. Bernice Warren Cultural Arts Program opens at Chester Eastside Inc. (CEI), it will not only enhance the activities its namesake currently provides for children at the center, but will work to encompass the culture of the entire city.
Not unlike the way CEI’s move to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church several years ago has enriched the lives of those within both ministries.
Warren’s 21 years as CEI’s pastor/director were celebrated Saturday night 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 organization representatives joined to praise her service, announce the program and formally introduce her successor.
“Bernice has spent her time pulling people together from the city and its more affluent suburbs,” said CEI board member and President Emeritus Bill Henderson. “It has always been her mission to do things with others, not for them, which is the number one thing I will always associate with her.”
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.
CEI, founded 10 years earlier at 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, CEI moved several blocks down Ninth Street to the Episcopal edifice. It also changed its status to a not-for-profit 501c (3).
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, 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.
“I would not be ordained or as acutely aware of social justice issues without Bernice,” said CEI board Vice President Rev. Dr. James Ley. “I love her with a passion.”
When Warren announced her retirement, “there was a bit of a panic,” he added. As Ley and his fellow board members considered CEI’s direction for the next three to five years and prepared a job description, they hoped to receive 10-12 resumes and were overwhelmed with the 170 responses.
As Jesus said in Matthew 20:16, “the last shall be first,” and Rev. Zuline Gray Wilkinson, whose CV came to their inboxes after the original group was whittled to six candidates, was chosen as the new executive director. 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, she was introduced as “the new face of Chester Eastside leadership.”
“Zuline is the proper FIT to succeed Bernice,” said her pastor, Rev. Dr. Horace Sheppard, Jr. “She is a person of Fidelity, Integrity and Tenacity and her determination will continue to serve this ministry.”
Wilkinson stood with CEI board President John Mackey as he presented Warren a plaque honoring her 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.”