Bernice Stories #2: The Beginning, Textual Tuesday: Philippians 2:17

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By Berry Kercheville

“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” This text aptly fits a woman who lived her life following the example of Paul.

Bernice with my oldest son, Brent

In March of 1940, Bernice and Charles were engaged to be married in Long Beach, California. Neither of them knew anything about the Lord nor had ever attended a church. Bernice was 23 years old and loved to dance. Dancing was just fun, and she pursued it with a passion. But all of that would change when God used a Catholic friend of Charles to turn Bernice’s life in a new direction. Since Easter was coming up, Charles’ friend made him promise he would go to church on Easter Sunday. So Charles called Bernice and told her to pick a church. Bernice immediately complained, “I don’t want to go to church!” Charles insisted, so Bernice picked up a newspaper and began to scan the religious section. When she notice “Christian Church” she thought, “Well, if I have to go to church, I’m going to one that is “Christian.” Of course in those days the Christian church believed the principles of salvation just as taught in the New Testament.

Easter Sunday came and Charles and Bernice attended their first church worship. Bernice said the preacher was a short man with a booming voice, who presented the gospel message in no uncertain terms. When the worship was over, they walked out the front door and paused on the steps. Bernice was the first to speak: “Charles, I think we are in sin and going to hell.” Charles nodded in agreement. Charles and Bernice were married on June 1, and baptized into Christ on July 1, 1940.

Charles was in the Army Corps of Engineers, and after a few years was transferred to Panama. There was no Christian Church anywhere near, but Bernice found a church of Christ on the other side of the isthmus and began attending there. Unfortunately, Charles started drinking and had no interest in whether Bernice could attend worship. He conveniently found Sunday mornings the ideal time to wash the car. Using public transportation, it took Bernice two hours to get to the building. One Sunday morning Bernice headed for worship with her three-year old daughter. Having exited one bus, she stood on a street corner waiting for the next when a huge thunderstorm rose up and within a minute drenched her. Soaked to the bone, depressed and all alone, Bernice asked herself whether she would even bother continuing to pursue the Lord. Within another minute, she cast aside that terrible thought and decided she would never again ask that question. The decision was made, and no matter what life and the devil threw at her, she would serve the Lord.

One Sunday, Bernice had a talk with the preacher, Gerald Fruge’. She said, “For a church that doesn’t believe in musical instruments, you sure don’t say much about it.” So, Gerald did a couple lessons on the subject and Bernice was convinced that she could no longer worship at a Christian Church.

Not long after, Bernice decided to start a church on her side of the isthmus, so she purchased a number of books by Leroy Brownlow on “Why I’m a Member of the Church of Christ.” She walked her neighborhood handing out the books to anyone interested and would revisit the following week and discuss the Bible passages referenced in the book. Soon people wanted to be baptized, so Gerald would travel and baptize those Bernice taught. After another few years, Charles and Bernice moved back to Long Beach, but Bernice had left her mark on Panama, and another group of the Lord’s people had been established. It would not be the last church she would start because her husband moved her to a remote area.

In Long Beach, Bernice attended the Studebaker Road church of Christ. She said it was tough at first driving past the Christian Church where she had many friends and instead attend where she knew no one. But that is where she stayed and did what she always did, sharing the gospel with anyone who would listen.

I will bring this segment to a close with this lesson. Women often do not give themselves enough credit for the value they have in the kingdom and their unique talents that can enable them to accomplish far more than what has been traditionally done. Paul often talked of women who were his “fellow workers” (Phil. 4:2). Bernice connected with people and enabled thousands to hear the gospel in her lifetime. But what stands out most is that she did it with an alcoholic husband. Many times someone would comment about seeing Charles drunk. Bernice never flinched, but would smile and say, “Well, everyone has to make their own decision. I want to go to heaven and I’m hoping you do too.”

Next article: Seeing Bernice Do Evangelism