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Bernstine to step down from UCLC after 30 years

Gwen Bernstine, left, and Pastor Tammey Aichner, right, at the New Covenant United Church of Christ in Williamsport.

At the end of February, Gwen Bernstine will step down as director of the United Churches of Lycoming County, a position she has held for 30 of the 75 years the group has been in existence.

Recently Bernstine shared some highlights of her time at the helm of the group. “I think the thing that I’ve seen throughout the ministry is the importance of connections,” Bernstine said. “They have happened here with United Church leaders and laity.” “Those ways that we’ve linked together have benefited United Churches in so many ways. It’s amazing,” she added. One area where that connectiveness really was, and continues to be, beneficial is in the area of flood relief.

“To think about the ways we’ve worked together in flood relief and the connections that we’ve been able to forge with all the different faith traditions as we work together to do that. We each do a piece of flood relief in different ways. The whole thing happens so it’s amazing how that works,” she said. She recalled a time in 1996 when January flooding had resulted in fatalities in the Lycoming Creek area.

“It was my connection to people who worked with the National Council of Churches that I had met my first year when I went to a national ecumenical staff organization retreat that brought Church World Service in that very first weekend and got disaster relief money and help in doing long term disaster planning,” she said. “It gave us all that connection to help us do the connecting we needed to do here, in the state and nationally,” she said, adding

“We keep reusing those same models every time we have a major flood in this area.” “I think about how you did it 30 years ago and how you do it now,” she added. “It’s just amazing to me the difference connections and technology make in our life.” From the very beginning, UCLC has been involved in things like nursing home worship and prison worship and devotions. But, with the onset of COVID, things have to be done differently. Nursing homes are closed to visitors, but churches are offering online worship services that can be accessed by anyone. Devotions that used to be offered only on radio, now are syndicated and offered on a devotion line on-demand.

The organization also has taken a stand on social issues. “We’ve worked against racism. When I came here in ’91, the Ku Klux Klan wanted to march in Williamsport down Fourth Street. That’s when we did our first racism resolution,” Bernstine said.

She noted that UCLC has reaffirmed that anti-racism resolution every year. Citing the visit by white nationalists in Brandon Park last summer, Bernstine stated, “It continues to be an issue.” She rated racism, poverty and mental health as continuing issues tackled by UCLC. The Shepherd of the Streets program was established as a social services ministry of United Churches a few years prior to Bernstine taking the position as director.

“Now they tend to focus mainly on helping with medical needs for people, which tended to be the area of need that nobody else was focusing on,” she said. The food pantry operated by UCLC also addresses issues of poverty in the community. Clients are invited to shop for their food at the pantry rather than being offering a pre-selected bag of food. An innovation that Bernstine said was introduced by the pantry and eliminated a lot of waste. Speaking on the topic of mental health, Bernstine said that she has always been amazed at the lack of recognition by the community of this problem.

“We try hard to help people to get the help they need and it not be such a albatross someone’s neck to go for help,” she said. Many years ago the family life task force at UCLC decided to begin working with suicide prevention. That work continues today. Bernstine was at UCLC during the 9/11 tragedy. “One of the things that allowed us to work through was inter-faith relationships,” she said.

She shared that when she joined the staff at UCLC there was an inter-faith panel that would go into schools to talk to students about faith traditions. similarities and differences. Originally there were members of the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faith on the panel. Since then a member of the Muslim faith was added. All are monotheistic religions. “Their agenda is to help the kids discover that they are four people who believe in the same God. Beyond that they don’t have an agenda,” Bernstine said.

“The other piece that comes off is that in the process, the kids discover that they can disagree on a lot of things, but that they can respect each other and be friends even though they don’t agree on everything,” she continued. “When has it been that most kids have been able to ask a question about anything and get four different religious leaders’ perspectives. No time,” she stated.

Other initiatives UCLC has taken on during Bernstine’s time there include a move to help the environment by getting Styrofoam usage out of the church setting. Because of the pandemic, many of the programs have taken a different form or have paused until everyone can meet in person again.

One goal that Bernstine had going into the job was that she wanted to see more dialogue among churches in the area. “I’ve really appreciated the times that we’ve been really able to talk together and get to understand each other together and to learn more about the things that we do,” she said.

Citing the unique abilities in each church, Bernstine said, “I think each church does something better than any other church. It behooves us to get to know each other and learn from each other. What are those things we can learn from each church and add to our own spirituality.”

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