The Rev. Bernice Bishop, founder and CEO of Women Empowering Women Ministries, whose food pantry fed hungry women and their families, died April 19 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at her West Baltimore home. She was 59.
“First off, Bernice was a woman of God,” said a sister, Gloria Braxton of East Baltimore. “She was honest, a woman of integrity, loving and kind, and well-loved in life. She was a joyful person and very spiritual.”
The former Bernice Alston, daughter of Bernie Alston, a construction worker, and his former wife, Shirley Alston, a clerical worker, was born in Baltimore.
“We grew up in poverty, a single-parent home in the city,” Ms. Bishop explained in an interview with the Open Society Institute of Baltimore. “As a child, I watched my mom go door-to door to gather up enough money so we could have Aunt Jemima pancakes and King Syrup for dinner. It was really hard.”
In addition to poverty, Ms. Bishop fought alcohol and drug addiction and at 14 arrived at adulthood when she gave birth to her daughter, Lakiesha Kelly.
Determined to make a better life for her daughter and herself, she went through rehabilitation and while doing so came to the realization that helping others would become her life’s work.
Ms. Bishop was a graduate of Lake Clifton High School and in 1999 earned a business degree from Baltimore City Community College. In 2005, she obtained a divinity degree from Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.
She was assistant pastor of the Dynamic Deliverance Cathedral on North Linwood Avenue in East Baltimore.
“She’d get up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. just to pray with the Lord,” Ms. Braxton said. “She talked it and walked it, the word of God.”
Ms. Bishop founded Women Empowering Women Ministries to feed hungry women and their families.
“She started bringing hot meals to the homeless camped out in a park in downtown Baltimore. She’d come every Saturday without fail, with tables full of chicken and rice and Little Debbie oatmeal creme pies,” according to the Open Society Institute interview. “On Sundays, she’d come back and invite people to church.”
Said Ms. Braxton: “It was down there at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. We used to call it ‘Hobo Park.’ ”
In 2005, Ms. Bishop and her mobile food truck began a partnership with the Maryland Food Bank, and since that time in addition to food, she distributed such essentials as laundry soap, toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant.
Tracey Ivison, Maryland Food Bank’s Partner Services coordinator, worked very closely with Ms. Bishop, whom she addressed as “Ms. Bernice.”
“Ms. Bernice was one of the most passionate partners I’ve encountered during my six years here,” the Pasadena resident wrote in an email. “This is a woman who would receive a call about a person in need, get out of her bed and open the pantry to ensure that person was fed. Ms. Bernice would purchase food with her own funds just to make sure that someone was eating right.
“One of my last calls with Ms. Bernice was from the hospital. She wanted to make sure that her order would be picked up and distributed to her clients while she was sick.”
She eventually established two food pantries across from each other on 25th Street, and expanded her food operation by establishing the Women Empowering Women Education and Outreach Center, whose mission in addition to giving away food was to teach women necessary life skills.
“People always say they want to teach people things so they won’t need assistance from others,” she explained in the Open Society Institute article. “But if I’m hungry and my child needs Pampers and we don’t have toothpaste, then it’s going to be hard to get my full attention. You have to holistically help people.”
Once she overcame a woman’s needs for food, she was able to focus on such issues as poverty, unemployment, homelessness, destructive behavior and addiction. Other areas she addressed included education, training opportunities, financial and budget management, credit restoration, General Education Development preparation, parenting skills and small business planning.
Throughout an eight-week program, women worked in the food pantry and also operated the Women Empowering Women’s secondhand store.
“We’re looking to take all the excuses away from the women who come into the program,” Ms. Bishop said in the interview. “We want to teach them to help themselves.”
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She added: “If I can just get these women to believe the sky is the limit, that they can reach their ultimate goals — and we are here to walk them through it — I believe we can change a lot of lives.”
“She certainly had the love of Jesus, and helping people who were without was her passion,” her sister said.
It is her family’s intent on keeping what Ms. Bishop established in operation. “It will be Bernice’s legacy,” Ms. Braxton said.
“The passing of Ms. Bernice is a huge loss to the community. She will be missed greatly," Ms. Ivison wrote. “I am proud to have worked with her, and called her my friend.”
Her husband of more than 20 years, James Bishop, a construction worker, died in 2017.
Plans for a memorial service for Ms. Bishop are incomplete because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to her daughter, of Northwest Baltimore, and her sister, Ms. Bishop is survived by her father and her stepmother, Carolyn Alston of Baltimore; William Eley of Baltimore, her lifelong best friend and father of her daughter; two brothers, Gregory Braxton of Cedonia and Spencer Alston of East Baltimore; seven other sisters, Shirl Harrison of Woodlawn, Cornelia Braxton of Ednor Gardens, Teresa Sharp of Linthicum, Kelley Alston, Kim Alston, Mildred Alston and Krissy Alston, all of Cedonia; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.