Late one night nearly three decades ago, the Rev. Jesse B. Bilberry Jr. prayed alone in the sanctuary of Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Scotlandville for wisdom.
“I was on my face before God when God gave the vision to me for this church,” Bilberry said.
He’d just been elected in 1984 as the church’s pastor when, he said, God revealed a three-phase building plan beginning with an education center, then a family life center and finally a large, modern sanctuary.
The congregation accepted his vision and in 1992 a spacious, 18-classroom education center with a large kitchen was added to the classic brick 1951 sanctuary.
An acre-sized $5.6 million Family Life Center, complete with bowling center, snack bar and regulation basketball court, opened last year and was dedicated last month in a ceremony attended by hundreds of church members, Missionary Baptist dignitaries and elected officials.
“I’ve been here 29 years, and I’m praying to live long enough to complete 30 years and see the beginning of a new sanctuary,” Bilberry, 83, said recently.
His comfortable office is filled with overflowing bookshelves, counter-tops crowded with memorabilia and walls covered with diplomas, photographs and awards.
Mount Pilgrim has about 1,300 people on the rolls, he said, and average attendance is about 700. The current sanctuary seats 800 and the proposed new sanctuary will seat 2,000 and be wired for modern technology, including big screens and television broadcasts.
“I believe within the next two or three years, we’ll see the beginning of the new sanctuary,” he said.
The vision and mission is explained in, “Thus Far By Faith,” a 1993 book published to celebrate the church’s 1893 founding.
“The primary and overall vision of this ministry is to carry out the will of Christ in the world, to proclaim and apply His gospel, which we are essaying to do now through worship, proclamation and witness, nurture and education and ministry,” the statement declares. “The ultimate goal is to make disciples.”
“My philosophy is that every member of this church has to be saturated with the vision and the mission of the church,” Bilberry said.
During a tour of the buildings, he pointed to large signs of the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the 23rd Psalm and the Model (Lord’s) prayer posted around the education center’s main meeting room.
“I believe that every child that passes through this Education Center knows those four foundational passages of Scripture,” he said. “Christian education, I feel, ought to undergird everything you do. Hosea says, ‘My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge.’”
That knowledge, however, must be delivered in a caring way, he cautioned.
“You can take the Word of God and whup people over the head with it and it doesn’t work,” he said with a broad smile. “It’s gotta be done with love.”
His “theme” verse for the church is displayed on a banner at the front of the sanctuary that declares in bold letters “Keep on Matthew 6:33ing.”
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” Bilberry quoted. “If I can get everybody in this church to be controlled by that verse, what a powerful place we would have.”
Born the oldest of 10 children, his father was a Missionary Baptist pastor and high school principal in Marion and Farmerville. Bilberry recalls experiencing biblical salvation at the age of 14.
“I never shall forget, (the) Rev. C.D. Simmons came to pastor the Blooming Grove Baptist Church, in Farmerville, La. And he say one night, ‘In order to be born again, you must believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and God raised him from the dead,’” Bilberry said, leaning forward in his chair. “‘If you believe that in your heart and confess it with your mouth’ — I say, ‘Pastor, I can believe that.’”
He was baptized in Blooming Grove Baptist and kept his membership there until 1975 when he moved to Baton Rouge.
Bilberry grew into a 6-foot 2-inch-tall star football and baseball player and was leading scorer on his basketball team in the public schools of Union Parish, graduating in 1947.
“My daddy graduated from Southern University and he always told me ‘When — not if — but when you go to Southern,’” Bilberry said with a laugh.
He turned down a basketball scholarship for a job at the School for the Deaf where he assisted the dean supervising the boys in the dormitory from 1947 through 1951. He is fluent in sign language, he said, and often communicates with deaf people that way.
He still played basketball, but for the Phi Beta Sigma intramural team, a fraternity well known for stressing educational opportunities for African Americans.
While riding the Illinois Central train back and forth from Farmerville to Baton Rouge, he met Verta Lee Hamilton, a beautiful co-ed from Monroe he eventually convinced to marry him.
“I couldn’t ask for a better wife,” he said. “She has been so supportive of my ministry.”
He graduated with a degree in social studies and English in May 1951, and was drafted into the U.S. Army in August.
“My whole outfit was shipped to Korea, but I went to Germany,” he said. “When they read the orders, everybody shouted, ‘You lucky stiff!’ ”
Upon his honorable discharge, Bilberry and Verta Lee were married Dec. 23, 1953.
“The church really loves her. They gave her a big party for her 80th birthday (last May). They never gave me a party,” he said with a chuckle.
Their daughter, Cassandra Gail Bilberry, now a special education teacher at Zachary Middle School, was born in 1958.
For three years, Bilberry taught schools in Farmerville and Spearsville and attended LSU graduate school, but only for summer classes because African Americans were then denied regular enrollment.
“The people at LSU were mighty nice to me, because there were some bills being passed in the Legislature that would make it difficult for African Americans to attend, but it didn’t work,” he said.
He earned an master of arts of supervisory administration in 1957, and was principal at Rosenwald High School in St. Joseph for the next 13 years.
The president of Southern University called him in 1969 to become director of Freshman Complex, then he was promoted to director of high school relations and promoted again to director of the admissions department from 1973 until 1984.
After joining Mount Pilgrim in 1975, Bilberry got involved in the church’s leadership, was ordained as a deacon, and said he would often think about what he would do in certain situations if he was the pastor.
He sought advice from an elderly pastor who told him to concentrate on the words of the Lord’s prayer, “Thy will be done.” He also discussed it with his wife.
“People laugh when I tell this, but she said, ‘If I had wanted a preacher for a husband I would have married me one,’ ” he said with a broad smile. “The Lord told me: He say, ‘You do what I called you to do and leave your wife in my care.’
“And one night I was down here on my knees and just praying and praying and asking the Lord to make things real to me and what he really wanted me to do, and he say, ‘I want you to preach and I want you to proclaim my word,’ ” Bilberry said, leaning forward in his chair. “I heard him. I heard him! And I obeyed him.”
The congregation elected him as the church’s eighth pastor on Jan. 16, 1984, and installed him in a Feb. 19, 1984, service presided over by the Rev. R. Douglas Thomas, then pastor of Progressive Baptist Church and president of the Fourth District Missionary Baptist Association, and the Rev. Theodore Judson Jemison, 94, pastor of Mount Zion First Baptist Church who was then-president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. and a prominent leader in the civil rights movement.
“Dr. Jemison had a great impact on my life and was very encouraging and always responded when I called upon him,” Bilberry said.
Bilberry earned a master of theology degree in 1988 and then a doctor of theology degree in 1990, both from Christian Bible College in Kenner.
He reads Philippians, Chapter 4, nearly every day, he said, where the Apostle Paul exhorts the Philippi church to be true, honest, just and pure.
If he had to declare a “life verse,” he said, it would be Isaiah, 26:3, and he quoted, “I will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth thee.”
“I follow the Bible and the Bible says, ‘Without a vision the people perish,’ ” he said. “I stand on the Word of God.”
Bilberry is serving his third year as moderator of the Fourth District Missionary Baptist Association, about 200 Missionary Baptist churches in Iberville, Point Coupee, West Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana and West Feliciana parishes.
He and Mount Pilgrim are also involved in Together Baton Rouge and often host meetings.
His goal, he said, is to keep preaching until his 30th year, Jan. 16, 2014, and help the church select the next pastor and serve as emeritus pastor.
“I just want people to remember me by the way I have loved,” Bilberry said with gracious smile. “These people know I love them. I have never asked the Lord to bless my preaching. I have just asked him to help me be the best possible pastor I could be.”
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