In 1970, the student journalists of the then-segregated Rosenwald (now Tensas) High School snapped a yearbook photo of their principal holding a baby boy on his lap.
Five decades later, the principal and the baby, now both pastors, shared the platform of Mount Zion First Baptist Church in downtown Baton Rouge as a generational shift in leadership of the Fourth District Missionary Baptist Association of Louisiana took place last week.
“It was Tensas Rosenwald’s last year, and the principal was Rev. Jesse Bernard Bilberry,” the Rev. Dr. René F. Brown, 50, told a packed sanctuary on Saturday evening. “Before integration, there was a school for African-Americans in St. Joseph. He was the principal, and I was that baby in the book.”
“So for the little baby to grow up and to succeed the principal, who his parents worked for, who educated his aunts and uncles and relatives, now I can stand here and say ‘thank you,’ ” Brown said, turning to Bilberry, the group’s 86-year-old outgoing president/moderator. The crowd erupted in applause.
“Dr. Bilberry often says ‘if you see a turtle on a post, he didn’t get there by himself,’ ” Brown said to the chuckling audience. “If you see a man in a position like this, he didn’t get there by himself.”
Asking the congregation to stand, Brown told them, “I got here standing on your shoulders. I’m just a country boy who fell in love with Jesus and went to a little church out among the cotton fields and somehow, somehow, God has called me — to allow you to allow me — to serve you.
“I’m going to do all my best, to do all I can, to make this an association of better people, not just African-Americans, not just European-Americans, not just Native-Americans, not just Mexican-Americans, but Christians who love God,” Brown pledged. “Thank you for the opportunity to serve you.”
Brown, who will serve for the next five years, is the 15th president/moderator of the Fourth District, a group of about 200 African-American churches in the six-parish area. The Fourth District is a part of the Louisiana Missionary Baptist State Convention, which is a member of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the largest black Baptist denomination in America with millions of members attending thousands of churches.
Brown became the pastor of historic Mount Zion First Baptist in 2007. He followed its late pastor, the Rev. Dr. T.J. Jemison, who sparked the Baton Rouge bus boycott, a movement that many say inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to organize the civil rights movement.
The installation service, which lasted more than two hours, was presided over by the Rev. Lee T. Wesley, president of the Iberville Parish association, and featured area pastors, political dignitaries and inspirational music performed by the church’s powerful choir.
The Rev. Dr. C.S. Gordon Jr., president of the state convention, officiated over the actual installation of Brown as president, and the Rev. Dr. Isaiah J. Webster, pastor of Greater New Guide Baptist Church, as vice president.
Gordon reminded the audience: “You are charged to be faithful followers as Dr. Brown leads this association.”
As Brown and Webster stood before the pulpit, Gordon emphasized that they were “to be faithful to the charge that has been given to you by the people of God, by the hand of God, that you have been called to lead. You have to be there when nobody else will.”
Then Bilberry, now president emeritus and senior pastor of Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, prayed for Brown and his wife, Dianna, and Webster and his wife, Louise. Bilberry called the pastors to surround the men and their wives and lay hands on them as a powerful show of spiritual support.
“We thank you, our Father, for two great men who will be leading us,” Bilberry prayed. “We know, dear God, you are going to crown them with wisdom and … we ask that you anoint Dr. Brown and Dr. Webster and you will give them everything they need to lead this organization.”
Earlier in the service, Shawn Wilson, newly appointed secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development who was representing Gov. John Bel Edwards, told the group that the new governor “has committed himself to having a cabinet that looks like Louisiana. He has a whole lot of believers who are praying for him and … who are going to work with him like your president, Dr. René Brown.”
Mayor-President Kip Holden proclaimed Jan. 9 as “Fourth District Day” and presented Brown with a framed key to the city, while state Sen. Sharon Weston Broome presented Brown with a framed commendation from the state Senate.
The Rev. Dr. Robert L. Baynham, one of Brown’s mentors and pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas, was the featured preacher.
“We no longer have the luxury of just showing up on Sunday morning,” Baynham told the congregation. “We must be about something. We’re not getting into peoples’ hearts.”
Brown closed the service by linking arms with Webster and declaring, “I believe our association will be a much better association because he (Webster) has the wisdom and I have the energy.”