Reverend Jesse Bilberry served for # years as pastor of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church before retiring in 2019 at the age of 89. The oldest of ten children born in rural Union Parish, he followed in his father's footsteps by attending Southern University then working as a principal and a pastor. Prior to his career in the ministry, Rev. Bilberry served as a much-beloved Principal of Tensas Rosenwald High School and then as an administrator at Southern University. Considered by his parishioners as "more of a teacher than a preacher", Reverend Bilberry has put lessons on the family at the center of his ministry. The Family Life Center that was constructed at Mt. Pilgrim during his time as pastor was an important early meeting place where hundreds of TBR leaders joined together for celebrations and public actions.
Photo by Travis Spradling for the Advocate
So, I used to drive there, listen to him preach, and I would come back home and preach to my brothers and sisters… We had a big trunk and I used to get up on that trunk and my sisters and brothers would sit around and I would preach to them.
I was born and reared in Union Parish. About twenty-nine miles North of Monroe, Louisiana. I was born in a place called Marion RFD. It was a small, rural parish and the major occupation was truck farming and harvesting pulp wood. We lived in two different towns. Our permanent home was in Farmerville. My daddy was a principal in Downsville for three years. They had a principal’s home there. So, for three years we lived in Downsville during the school session and Farmerville when school was not in session.
My father... My father was a hero... but I didn't think he was a hero *laughs* early on. But he was a family man. He had ten children. I was the oldest of ten. My mother never worked a day outside of the home. He was a hustler. He farmed part-time, and then he taught school. I remember sometimes he would hire somebody to take him where he needed to go and allow us to use the car. But you better take care of it. You misuse it, you get stranded, whooh boy. He was a left-hand man, we called him a southpaw, and he was firm, very firm. He demanded that we live obedient lives, demanded that we respect our mother. He would do whatever he could for us, but he demanded that we just be obedient. And you tell him the truth. Now you talking about being in trouble if you didn't tell him the truth about something.
As I grew older, I just hung around my dad a lot. When he was principal, I used to hang around him at the school, hang around his office. He was called into the ministry, so he was also pastoring a church or two while he was principal of the school. So, I used to drive there, listen to him preach, and I would come back home and preach to my brothers and sisters *Laughs* And somehow or another, my favorite subject was on the family. On the family: Husbands treat your wives well, and sisters and brothers love each other. We had a big trunk and I used to get up on that trunk and my sisters and brothers would sit around and I would preach to them.
My daddy was a Southernite. I never did get too much into the story of how he started at Southern University. Farmerville was two-hundred and eleven miles from Baton Rouge. But he graduated from Southern, and he was a strong Southernite. And my daddy never did said “If you go to college,” he said, “When you go to Southern.”
When I came out of the service, I worked a job in Union Parish. I went back to Farmerville, and they gave me a job and placed me in the school with my father. He was my first Principal.
I graduated from high school in Farmerville, 1947, and I came to Baton Rouge, enrolled at Southern University, stayed at Southern University four years, graduated in 1951, and went into the Korean Conflict.
Before I went into the Korean conflict, I got engaged to a girl from Monroe, Louisiana, and she and I are still married. Both of us just celebrated out birthdays. She made 89 and I made 92, and she's just blended, like she was almost a part of my family before we got married. Verta and I met at Southern *laughs* She is an accomplished musician, and she graduated from Southern in voice and instrumental. We met there, but I had seen her in Monroe in high school. But I just never got close enough to say anything to her. Then when I saw her at Southern, and I recognized that I had seen her playing basketball *laughs* on the basketball team. So, we started dating, and we got married when I got out of the service, in December 1953. I graduated and went into the Korean Conflict and left her in school. So, while I was in the Korean conflict she graduated from Southern and was employed by the Jackson Parish school system in Jonesboro, Louisiana. When I came out of the service, I worked a job in Union Parish. I went back to Farmerville, and they gave me a job and placed me in the school with my father.
I was teaching social studies, and at the end of my second year, my superintendent called me in and advised me that they were going to need a principal. My father was getting a little up in age, and they invited me to go to grad school. So, we talked about it and then I came down and enrolled at LSU. Then there were some white people in the Farmerville school system who thought I shouldn't be attending LSU. So, they didn't renew my contract. In spite of what they thought, I still enrolled and continued my studies at LSU. When I was there, they were looking for a principal up in Tensas Parish, and they recommended me. So when I graduated from LSU in January of '57, I went up to St. Joseph in Tensas Parish and served as principal for fourteen years at Tensas Rosenwald High School.
When I got to be principal of the school in St. Joseph, and my daddy was principal in Farmerville, I remember once he and I went to a principal’s conference at Southern University. They used to have seminars and workshops. I would drive to Farmerville, pick him up, and drive him down. We were roommates. He was also my first speaker of my graduation exercise. He gave the commencement address.
My dad was fifty-six years of age when he died. He died, sort of suddenly like, and I struggled for a lonnng time. I wondered if I'd get past fifty-six. But I did. And as I got older and older, finally I made seventy, and then I told my wife, “If I make eighty, I want a birthday party." So, my eightieth birthday, and my ninetieth birthday, I had two wonderful celebrations. As children, you know, you really can't appreciate your parents, what they are doing, knowing that what they are doing is right. Sometimes you just can't agree with them. But the older I got, the more I appreciated my father.
When my daddy passed away, there were four of us that graduated from Southern, and my mother still had six children at home. I made a commitment to him on his deathbed that I would assist my mother and see that the rest of the children all got through Southern, and I did *laughs* All ten of his children—all ten of us, graduated from Southern University.
I said, "Well, some good things happened. My wife and I had a little knowledge, we shared it with y'all, and you were obedient. And you went on and made good citizens out of yourselves." I said, "That's your reward. Give yourselves some credit."
A couple of years or so after I went to Tensas Parish, the music teacher had an opportunity to move to Houston to be with her husband, and my wife was a music teacher. So, my superintendent let me hire my wife.
When I was in Tensas Parish, I had to do some some unusual things. It was a pretty large school. They had about twelve-hundred students, first through twelfth grades. And I had the only high school in the parish and it was a consolidated school. All the black kids in the parish, seventeen buses, pulled into my campus every morning and unloaded. And then when we'd dismiss students, they were, oh Lord, scattered all over the parish. So, like, basketball, choir, it was difficult for them to stay and practice and rehearse, you know. So I had to do some things different. Everybody had to take music, and everybody had to take health and physical education, and all girls who were going to play basketball had to schedule PE at a period where I had PE, 75 minutes, and so at that time the coach would have all her basketball players in physical education. Also, my wife would have all of the people who were going to sing in the choir, and they would have to take music at that seventy-five-minute period so that she could have choir rehearsal. So that's how she taught everybody music, and that's the way we had to do it. But it turned out fine.
I don't know if Ms. Alice Washington would tell you anything about it, but those students thought that I was the meanest man in the world. I ran a tight ship. I ran a tight ship, especially when it came to our facilities, the same way I was with the church. I say, you don't get buildings overnight. And once you get some, you appreciate it, thank God for it, and take care of it. But then it becomes a responsibility of everybody who uses it. Janitors and custodians are here just in case *Laughs* So, I live by precept and example. For instance, if I had an assembly, and I had some trash that was thrown down as I walked through the assembly. I threw that paper down and then I went back and I walked by, (I had planted some garbage cans) I picked up each one of those pieces of paper and I threw it in the trash can. I said, "Now, I want everybody in this school to make a commitment today that you will neither litter, nor will you walk around or bypass trash. Now, when we see it, we pick it up and we put it in the nearest trash container." Now that meant faculty members, that meant everybody. And, you know a lot of people would talk and they would prop their feet up against the wall, and leave marks on the wall. I demonstrated, "We won't practice these kinds of things." So, finally we got a new school building up there. And ten years later, during an open house, visitors came in they thought we had renovated and repainted everything. No, we just took care of it *Laughs*
They still have the Tensas Rosenwald Reunion, and man, when my wife and I go to that reuion, they act like we're God. I told them, I say, "Look, y'all have to give yourselves some credit." They say, "The Lord sent you to Tensas Parish." I said, "Well, some good things happened. My wife and I had a little knowledge, we shared it with y'all, and you were obedient. And you went on and made good citizens out of yourselves." I said, "That's your reward. Give yourselves some credit." So everyday somebody's calling us from California and different places, "We’re just calling to see how you’re doing," that kind of thing. That was a powerful chapter in our lives.
I'm ninety-two years old, my memory's not as keen as it once was, but I'm grateful. The Lord blessed me in all of my areas of employment. And one thing, all of the jobs that you heard that I've had, I've never applied for a job.
In 1969, While I was up there in Tensas Parish, Dr. G. Leon Netterville, who was president of Southern University, gave me an offer to come to Baton Rouge, an offer that I could not refuse. Everybody didn't want to see me leave, but we did, and he gave her a job, so we both came into the system. She was employed at the School for Visually Impaired.
President Netterville had a vision for all freshman students who would come to the university. They would enroll in what we called the Junior Division. During those days, especially in the predominantly black schools, many of the youngsters were woefully, woefully unprepared for college. So, you would take them in the Junior Division, and those who needed the preparation courses to get ready to go to college, it would groom them for college. I had a pretty good relationship with my young people, so he brought me in and I become director of the newly developed Freshmen Complex where all new freshman were housed. So, the freshman women and freshman men, before they reported to the dean of men and the dean of women, were with me, in the Junior Division. Well, that didn't work out so well. He didn't do a good job of selling the idea to the dean of men and the dean of women, and I reported directly to the president. So, he moved me to another position, Director of High School Relations. I served as a recruiter for the university for several years. Southern University did not have an organized structure, Office of Admissions. So, I wrote and developed a proposal, and went on to work and organized an Office of Admissions and he made me Director of Admissions.
I did quite a bit of teaching. If God and I had a conversation and He would ask me, “Jesse, if you could have only one gift, which gift would you prefer?” I would say, "Let it be the gift of teaching.”
During my time working at Southern University, I united with the Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church. I was ordained a deacon there, and I worked in the church, and at the same time I was working at Southern University. I accepted my call into the ministry while I was at Southern University and became an associate pastor at Mt. Pilgrim.
I retired from Southern in '84, when Mt. Pilgrim called me to pastor the church. They wanted a full-time pastor, so I knew that one would suffer, and I could see that it would be Southern University, because I was really in love with my ministry. So, I retired from the system and became full-time pastor of the Mt. Pilgrim church. The church wanted a full-time pastor, although they weren't ready to pay full time. But between my retirement check and what they were giving me, I could have patience and wait on them. But that was one of the things I had to do. My wife was concerned and did not want me to give up my job so fast, and was concerned about my future and about them changing pastors. She was afraid I would fall into that category. But after much prayer we both decided we would put it into the Hands of God.
If you want to know the truth, all my life I was in the church. I was born and reared in the church—I can't ever remember when I was not a Christian. I was just born in the church. All of us children were. I was in Sunday school, and the deacons loved me, they gave me things to do. I was assistant superintendent of the Sunday school, and I was just very active, and I liked church work. I liked the ministry, liked working with people. Even when I came here, soon after I joined Mt. Pilgrim, they made me a Deacon. I went right to work teaching. I attended various conventions and seminars. Working with Vacation Bible School, and being very active in the Sunday school, and it was just a joy.
Church ministry falls under two headings, and that's Evangelism and Stewardship. Evangelism is that you witness to the people, and then stewardship is that you give leadership aimed at helping every Christian, every member, every disciple to bring total life under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Those are the aims. The reason the world is in the shape that's in today is that we have failed to make disciples. I'm not an African American. I'm an American. Because I can't trace myself back to Africa. I'm Black, but I'm Christian first. I'm Christian and then I'm Black. That means that I have to do what God wants me to do first. Then I also live by a worldview that the Earth, the creation, is a theocracy, and everything in this Earth was made by God, and everything adds up to Him.
I did quite a bit of teaching. Most people identified me more as a teacher than they did a preacher. If God and I had had a conversation and he would ask me, Jesse, if you could only have one gift, which gift would you prefer?” I would say, "Let it be the gift of teaching". And now, my dear brother, it just makes me feel so good, when people contact me and inform me how much my ministry is helping them to grow. I had a guy call me the other day, I just wouldn't believe it. He called me and said, "Reverend Bilberry, I just called you to tell you how much I grew and didn't know I was growing." I said, "Well all I had to do was put it out there." I relate that to a parable in the Bible that tells us about when a sower went forth, and he just stopped trying to inspect the soil on the ground. Instead, he just threw the seed, and whatever ground they fell on, the holy spirit took them and used them.
The Lord blessed the ministry, and in 2019 I got to the place where I felt that I didn't want the ministry to suffer. So, March the 31st, 2019, I preached my last sermon. Mt. Pilgrim had always reminded me that the most important series of sermons I preached was on love. So, my first sermon was on love, and my last sermon was on love.
I'm ninety-two years old… and if anybody would’ve told me when I was fourteen years old that racism would've still been as unsettled as it is today, I never would've believed it.
America is not racist, but racism is in America. Now, I'm not racist. And I would never let anybody assign me to being a racist, because I found out how God feel about racism, so I feel the same way He feels about it. Up there in Farmerville, my mother would send me to the store, and I had some little white boys and girls that I played with, and then I had some that I didn't play with. Some called me the N-word. Well, those who called me the N-word, I just avoided them, and prayed for them. I remember when I was principal of the school, I'd drive all the way from Farmerville to Baton Rouge and stop at service stations, and fill up my tank, but I couldn't use the restroom. Places I'd like to get a hamburger, I couldn't get it. I experienced all of that, but I never did hate anybody. I still love people.
When I was at LSU, there were people who didn’t want me there because I was black (long pause) And you know, you can't legislate that. You can't legislate that. Nobody can make you love me; you know? And then God put us all on this earth. He said, "You're my disciples by the way you love each other." And it's something that has just got to come from the individual. I'm ninety-two years old… and if anybody would’ve told me when I was fourteen years old that racism would've still been as unsettled as it is today, I never would've believed it. If you look at CNN and you look at all of the people, when they come on and they have a discussion on racism, if you ever notice, just notice, they don't have an ending. They don't know where to go with it, they don't know what to do.
I don't say this to a lot of people, but really, when I was about twelve, thirteen, fourteen years of age, I'd look at so many places I couldn't go because of the color of my skin, so many things I couldn't do. And I just actually felt like this personality had been housed in the wrong vessel. And I really would’ve been better off if I would’ve been born white. That's right. But then when I really got deep into theology, got deep into studying the Bible, I found out that was not so. So, I just started to give my life to live like a child of a king, act like a child of a king, and don't let you or anybody else determine who I am. But in the meantime, I don't hate you or the way you feel, I just pray for you. And you know the Bible is a good book, and I tell people how the Bible say, "Pray for your enemies." You pray for people and hate crime. The President can't do nothing about it. It's just that people have to be genuine Christians, and exercise agape love.
The way I look at it, you have your white shirt, and you have your fountain pen, and you have the top off of your fountain pen and you stick it in your shirt pocket, and all that ink comes out. You put it in the cleaners, you wash it, but that stain is there. Just like Sharpton, he comes down and preach these sermons. And then every six or seven years, something else happens, he comes again, preaching the same sermon, whipping white folks over the head, and racism is still hanging around. See, what you need to do, you need to try to eradicate every shape, form, and fashion of racism. And there's got to be a conclusion, or a settlement on the matter. And that means that according to God's plan, somebody somewhere has to recognize that they did wrong.
Racism is in the church. It never will be eradicated in the culture until it's eradicated in the church. I've gone to meetings where we've had black pastors and white pastors, and we were supposed to talk about erasing racism, but we don't ever get to what we need to talk about. First John 1 and 9, say whoever commits a sin should confess the sin, and when you confess the sin, God will forgive you and cleanse you of all unrighteousness. But the sin can never be forgiven if it’s not confessed. The church that has not allowed certain members to come into their congregation because they feel that they are inferior, so they need to repent and ask for forgiveness. Then in our families, families have taught their children that we were inferior, and used the Bible to do it, which is not true. Now they have done that. Okay, so all families need to repent and say, "We have been wrong. We ask for forgiveness." And then, institutional confession. America, for what they did to Black people in slavery, somewhere along the line somebody needs to say, in our congress, in the Senate, say, "America inflicted an unjust, sinful law on a segment of its citizens: Slavery. which was evil and sinful, and we confess that it was wrong. We shouldn't have done it." And then when that confession is made, build a memorial to that, and then the issue of racism is settled. But that's the way it’s going to have to be settled, because God—the God I know—he doesn't have an alternate plan *laughs*
He took that sermon back to New York with him and he said, "You made one statement in your sermon. You said that if racism was skin, there's nothing we can do about it." He said, "But if it's sin, there's a remedy for it."
One institution that really influenced me was Promise Keepers. Promise Keepers was started by a football coach out of Colorado. He related racial reconciliation to a professional football team made up of people of different races, and how they got along and worked together as a team. So, he formed Promise Keepers and they had a pastor's conference in Atlanta, Georgia, 1996. At the end of that conference, they asked a black pastor and a white pastor to pair off, get each other's phone numbers, address, and continue to communicate after the conference was over. And I paired off with Reverend Wood, pastor at Church of the Nazarene in Endicott, New York. He and I started calling each other, and talking, and finally he decided he wanted to drive to Baton Rouge, and his wife Marianne rode with him. She said, "Now you met this man one time, and you haven't seen him since Promise Keepers, and you’re still driving—you don't know what you’re getting into." But they keep driving. Finally, they drove up at the hotel, and when I walked out and she saw me, she immediately had a different attitude. We embraced and we talked. This was in '96.
They spent that weekend with me, and went back, and then we had decided—now his church was all white—and mine wasn’t, I don't think at that time I had any other race of people, in our congregation. But then we decided that we were going to exchange visits with our churches. So, I took Mt. Pilgrim to Endicott, New York. I took my choir, Lord, we took two big buses. That was some kind of a trip. Before going to Endicott, we went to the Canadian side, where we visited parts of the Underground Railroad. Just to educate our people, and give them that experience, we had somebody to lead them on a tour of the Underground Railroad while we stayed over in Buffalo. You stand on the Canadian side of the border, and you look over the Niagara River to Buffalo, New York. And slaves would jump in the river on the United States side and they'd swim to victory. There was a song that was composed called "Deep River", and the lyrics had to do with how daring it was, but yet the chance was worth it. Many people who jumped in that river didn't make it across. Some did.
That Sunday we had worship services. I preached, he introduced me to his church, and my wife and I stayed in the house with him and Marianne. We had a great weekend. Later, he came down here and brought his church. Matter of fact, the Advocate had real coverage on that. They had a big write-up; Richard Woods and the Church of the Nazarene came to Baton Rouge. That Sunday, I preached a sermon on racism. He recorded that sermon. He took that sermon back to New York with him and he said, "You made one statement in your sermon. You said that if racism was skin, there's nothing we can do about it." He said, "But if it's sin, there's a remedy for it." He said, "My congregation took that one statement, and every six months or so, I play that sermon over, and that helped us end racism more than anything I know.” I said, "Well praise the Lord, Praise the Lord.”
Pastor Wood is no longer in New York, he's now in Jacksonville, Florida. It hasn’t been too long ago he drove up here and spent the day with me, and my wife and I have gone down there and spent time with him and Marianne. And right now, not long ago we last texted. We text and we call on the phone quite frequently.
I had experience right here in Baton Rouge, I tried to pair off with a church, but the pastor was not able to convince all of his members, so it didn't work. I invited him to come to Mt. Pilgrim and preach, but he couldn't me to come to his church and preach. Actually, they had quite a few pastors from Baton Rouge participate in Promise Keepers. We had good relationships. But see, where the problem has always been, the white pastors, they just didn't have the relationship, I guess, that I had with my congregation. See, I could walk into Mt. Pilgrim and say, "Hey, y'all got to love white folks." They’d say, "Amen." All of them would say it. I say you got to love them. You got to love everybody. Don't care what color, creed, you got to love everybody, just like God.
When you look at God's plan, the family is His most important governmental institution. Everything God wanted to do, and everything he wants to do today, He intended for the foundation to be laid right there in the family
Together Baton Rouge was revealed in 2011. I remember I was in Minden, Louisiana at the May Board of the Louisiana Missionary Baptist State Convention. And while I was there, I saw on the television where an organization called Together Baton Rouge had been revealed, and they marched that day. Charles Smith, Melvin Rushing, Lee Wesley— all who should’ve been in Minden with me were not there, they were here in Baton Rouge. And I had never heard of it. But then after a time, they felt like they needed Mt. Pilgrim to become a part of it.
When I looked at the organization and looked at what it was doing, I'd always been pretty close to the board, and I felt that this is where Mt. Pilgrim could not afford not to be apart. It looked like it was something that the community needed. It looked like it was something that the community had been needing, to bring all people together. If you go right over here to Sumrall Drive from my house, turn left and then turn onto Blue Grass Drive, that first little bridge that connects to the neighborhood back there? That's where they all came together, I knew about all of that. So, I felt like it was something that the community needed.
I always was very careful about what I brought the church into. Because the church belongs to God, and I checked it out and it was the kind of thing that we needed. And it looked like, at the time, they were mostly seeking congregations. So, I enjoyed the fellowship. Mt. Pilgrim was used as a special meeting place for Together Baton Rouge. We have a Family Life Center. I never shall forget when I went to the deacons with the diagram with everything to be included that Family Life Center. *laughs* They looked at me that night and say, He must be out of his cotton-picking mind. I told them, this a faith walk, a faith walk.
When you look at God's plan, the family is his most important governmental institution. Everything God wanted to do, and everything He wants to do today, He intended for the foundation to be laid right there in the family. You, right now, can't name me one single institution or one single thing in this universe that's not dependent on the family. *Laughs* And when the family breaks down, the President can't fix it, the White House can’t fix it, only God can fix it.
We had a lot of meetings with Together Baton Rouge at the Family Life Center. I guess the most memorable one was the Pentecostal Sunday. When we met, and we had some real interesting discussion on that day. And I believe that was the day when in my remarks, I pointed out to them that I was not Black and Christian, but I was Christian, and then Black. I also had some opportunities to make presentations, but don't pin me down to them *laughs* I can remember them vaguely, but we had some fruitful meetings. We had a lot of fruitful meetings.
God's plan was, and is, is that when issues and problems surface, He wants the cities and the communities to see how He would handle the problem. And the only way they could see that, they would have to see the church in action.
My thirty-five years in the ministry, my philosophy was, if you make this God's church, he will take care of it.
You look at the church— you are the church, every individual. The church is in our heart. So, you don't have to be in a building to worship God. And I did some strong teaching on that. There's personal worship, and then there's corporate worship. And you're in personal worship 24/7. When you go to the church, and the pastor calls to worship, you're in corporate worship. And when he calls the benediction, you shift back into individual worship. You stay and worship God 24/7.
Seven of us children are still living, and we have a family text group. We communicate every day, Every day. Every morning' we get up, we all communicate. Somebody leads off. And then on Sunday, somebody's responsible for putting a devotional message on the strand and we all react to it before the day is gone.
During the pandemic, my only daughter and child, Cassandra, has been doing all the going out and coming in. And in Psalm 121, the 7th and 8th Verse, it says, "The Lord will bless you going in and coming out." So, we pray that over her, all the time, bless her going out and coming in. You get to a place where you are really under the control of God, and that can happen, and you think just like He thinks, feel just like He feels.
My thirty-five years in the ministry, my philosophy was, if you make this God's church, he will take care of it. And I was just thinking about, if everybody in this world was just like me, there would be no murders, nor any mass shootings. Nobody would be hated or talked about. I have learned, when people do something to you that they should not have done, you know it was not really that person that did it, that they just allowed the devil to use them. So, I'm at peace, but I couldn't have this peace if I had not turned my life over to God and let him live it.
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.