The Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church’s Family Life Center, the Rev. Jesse. B. Bilberry Jr. says, was built for just one reason.
“We wanted to provide a safe and wholesome place for children and families to enjoy healthy activities,” Bilberry said.
The sprawling, $5.6 million center, which covers an acre, includes a regulation basketball court and a large stage wired for state-of-the-art lights, sound and video, a four-lane bowling center complete with a food court serving pizza, drinks and snacks, a fitness center, locker rooms, a Jacuzzi, and several classrooms and offices.
“When the children wanted to go bowling and eat pizza, we didn’t like the environment of drinking and cursing,” the pastor said. “Our church basketball teams were always trying to find courts and the public courts weren’t always available.
“We decided we could do this on our own property,” Bilberry said.
During a recent dedication service, Bilberry quoted a Scripture “that is the driving force behind the vision for this Family Life Center. Luke 2:52 says, ‘And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.’ ”
Bilberry also sees the center as a way to keep the young people involved in the church instead of drifting further into secular society and even criminal behavior.
“We have some boys involved in the church — people think they’re all in Angola — but they’re not,” Bilberry said. “I see boys hanging out on the streets all the time. This is a place for them.”
Joel Diggs, 16, agrees that the streets are terrible place while the center is a fun place.
“We come here to chill and play basketball, instead of getting shot,” Diggs said after the Oct. 24 dedication service.
“I come here all the time,” added Cierra Fountain, 17. “There is a lot of crime out there and this is a safe place for us to come.”
“We feel safe here and it is a wholesome environment,” said Cedric Robins Sr., who was bowling with his son, Cedric, Jr., 11.
Son Cedric agreed with his dad, saying, “It’s a nice place for all the kids.”
Deacon Charles Brazier said the church has organized bowling teams among the various groups and there is an ongoing tournament. “People are really getting involved,” Brazier said. “We’re even having people join the church.”
“The kids love it,” added Danette Brazier, a bowling center volunteer. “They get off the bus and come straight here (to the pizza and snack bar).”
The Mount Pilgrim Family Life Center is a unique concept among African-American churches, Bilberry said. “If you look on the Internet, you won’t find an African-American church running a family life center like we are.
“Now, we’re having other people come here too,” Bilberry said.
The youth of First Baptist of Zachary, a predominately white congregation, recently visited the bowling alley and “they told us, what a pleasant environment it was. It has been a real beautiful thing for race relations.”