God moves in mysterious ways — even in church meetings.
For the Rev. Jesse B. Bilberry Jr., it happened at a church meeting 35 years ago. There and then, God changed the course of his life.
Bilberry was an associate minister at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church when the church called a meeting on Jan. 16, 1984, to elect its next pastor. Bilberry had only been in the ministry for about 18 months and was told he was not in the running for the position.
"I came down to be a part of the process," Bilberry recalled. "There was a young man who was a student at Southern University who got up from the floor and nominated me from the floor. And about five minutes later, I was pastor of this church."
He has served Mount Pilgrim faithfully since. About a year ago, he informed the church this year would be his last.
"On March 31, I plan to preach my farewell sermon and put the keys to the church in the new pastor's hands. I'm glad I'm going to retire so an able-bodied pastor can come in here and take up this ministry," said Bilberry, who will be 90 on May 12.
The church is planning several events as part of Bilberry's 35th anniversary/retirement, including a banquet at 6 p.m. March 8 at the church's Family Life Center, 9700 Scenic Highway.
At the banquet, the nationally renowned Bishop Joseph Walker, of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, will speak. Walker is a Louisiana native and attended Mount Pilgrim while a student at Southern University.
At 3 p.m. March 10, another former Mount Pilgrim member, the Rev. Roger C. Williams, of Glen Cove, New York, will speak for Bilberry's pastoral appreciation service in the church. A "Reflections" program is set for 11 a.m. March 24.
Bilberry, a native of Marion, was an educator at Southern when he attended that life-changing church meeting 35 years ago. He heard the 18-year-old student testify of Bilberry's faithfulness and dedication assisting the retiring pastor in a number of areas.
"He got up on the floor and said, 'We've got an associate minister here. And I know y'all have seen the kind of work he's done and how he's represented this church,' " Bilberry recalled.
Bilberry said he was somewhat taken aback when he found out what God had in store for him.
"I hadn't been ordained, only licensed, and God showed up that night, and I became pastor of this church — hadn't pastored anywhere, didn't have any pastoral experience or nothing like that," Bilberry said. "I knew the Lord was getting me ready for a church, but I didn't realize he was getting me ready for this one. That was the most wonderful work I've ever seen him do."
After the church meeting, Bilberry called the deacons together. He knew the importance of deacons, having served in that position when he joined the church about eight years before.
"I said the church has spoken," Bilberry recalled. "I said the New Testament calls for deacons, and I would not try to pastor around you. We're going to work together."
From the outset, Bilberry emphasized reading and education. While new to the pastorate, the then 55-year-old was not new to education. He had an undergraduate degree in social studies and English from Southern and also a master's in education degree from LSU. He had been teaching for more than 33 years.
He was working at Southern when he became pastor at Mount Pilgrim, where he focused on Christian education, instituting the church's Sunday school program and later overseeing the construction of the church's education building in 1992.
"That's the only way you can get people to grow is by teaching," said Bilberry, who also holds a doctorate in theology from Christian Bible College. "Anybody can come to Sunday school. It's a great program. … The only way you can grow is through the way of God; there's no alternative. You can't have a story of faith if you're not reading the Bible."
When members become educated in the word and grow spiritually, they become disciples, Bilberry said.
"The mission of the church is to make disciples," he said. "One of the reasons we have so many problems in our church is we don't make disciples."
Bilberry said he believes teaching — not necessarily preaching — and pastoral care are among his strengths as a pastor.
"I'm not a great theologian," he said. "I never asked the Lord so much to bless my preaching. I just asked him to bless my pastoral ministry. When you pastor people, they don't complain about preaching; they listen. … If people would come to this city and ask for the top 10 preachers, my name wouldn't be among them … But if you say teachers, they'd say Bilberry's a great teacher."
Teaching and preaching had long been a part of the Bilberry family. The pastor is the oldest of 10 children born to a father who was a longtime educator and preacher in north Louisiana. Bilberry, his father and his siblings graduated from Southern.
"He was my hero," Bilberry said of his father, Jesse Bilberry Sr., who died at the age of 56. "He was telling people that one day I was going to preach."
The younger Bilberry said he had aspirations of following his father's footsteps as an educator. In 1947, he came to Southern. He fought in the Korean War before going back to north Louisiana where he worked at a school with his father, who was a principal.
Bilberry returned to Baton Rouge to LSU in 1956 to pursue a master's degree. Elected officials and others from around the South sought tougher segregation laws in schools, and Bilberry was among the few black students.
"They were really trying to pass legislation that would keep us out of LSU. They just didn't want us in that school," Bilberry said. "Sometimes it was difficult walking around that school, and you didn't see any other blacks."
Bilberry said some of his fellow students and some administrators were kind.
"I was at LSU, and they came out and put on the water fountain 'White Only' and on the restrooms 'White Only,' and the students tore the signs down," he said. "(School officials) substituted a course, so I could get out in case those laws passed."
Bilberry again returned to north Louisiana. He said that at age 26 he became the youngest black principal of a school in the state, taking over at the then-segregated Rosenwald High School in Tensas Parish. He was there for 14 years when he got a call from Southern University President G. Leon Netterville to head the school's freshmen complex.
Bilberry worked in various capacities at Southern and joined Mount Pilgrim in 1975. After serving as a deacon, Bilberry accepted his call to the ministry in 1981 against the wishes of his wife, Verta, a former music teacher. The two met at Southern and married in 1953.
"The reason I didn't preach sooner was because every time I talked about it, she didn't want me to preach," said of his wife of 65 years. The couple started "courting" while at Southern and married in 1953 after he returned from the Korean conflict.
Bilberry said it took about six months for his wife and only child, daughter Cassandra Gail Bilberry, to see that he was serious about his call to ministry.
A few years ago, Bilberry had a stroke. He remembers a serious discussion he had with God as he lay in a New Orleans hospital.
"I got to thinking about preachers I had known that had strokes and never got to come back to the pulpit," he said. "I was just talking to the Lord. I said, 'If that's what you want for me, take my voice. If I can't preach anymore, if you're trying to tell me something, I want to listen. But if you give it back to me, I'm going to holler for you.' "
Bilberry quickly returned the pulpit.
"I talk to the Lord and watch him work," he said.
One of the Bilberry's best-known expressions is "Keep on Matthew 6:33-ing," based on Matthew 6:33: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." It was coined from a book by George McCalop, the late Georgia author who visited Mount Pilgrim.
Bilberry encouraged his members to seek God in all they do, even finances.
"Everything that you do is under two headings: evangelism and stewardship," he said. "When you give, your giving is talking. It's either saying leftovers or Lord. Stewardship recognizes him as Lord. And evangelism recognizes him as teacher."
Bilberry said one of his regrets is not getting the church more focused on outreach in the community.
He's hopeful more will be done in the future.
"I would like to see the next pastor drive the devil out of North Baton Rouge," he said.
Bilberry, who for many years was active in the Fourth District Baptist Association and the National Baptist Convention USA, has mixed feelings about his impending retirement.
"I hate not to be the pastor of Mount Pilgrim," he said. "This church is so dear to me."
Another day. Another blessing.
One instance or moment in our lives can impact the rest of our lives.
The great leader Moses found that out the hard way. One moment of anger caused him a trip into the Promised Land. During his time of leading the Israelites in the desert, Moses had to put up with more than his share of whining, grumbling and complaining. One of things the people often complained about was a lack of water.
In Numbers 20, God instructs Moses to take a stick, gather the people together and speak to a rock before their very eyes so they could see the water come out. Here's what follows in Numbers 20: 9-12: "So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”
You see Moses got so mad with the people and called them "rebels" and perhaps a few other choice words. And instead of simply speaking to the rock, he hit it. God didn't say to hit the rock; God said speak to the rock. And because of Moses' disobedience, impatience and fit of anger, he wasn't able to lead the people into the Promised Land.
He was able to see it from a distance. He didn't lose out on his heavenly home. He just wasn't able to fulfill his earthly journey. I tell the kids in Sunday school all the time to speak to the rock; don't strike the rock. Baseball gives you three strikes, but sometimes one strike will disqualify us from a lot of things in life. God will forgive, deliver and restore but some things, some scars, some burns, some hurts, some pain we will have to deal with for the rest of our lives on earth. Speak to your situations. Don't get mad. Don't strike out at people. Give it to God.