MANATEE -- Eight months after the Rev. James "Tripp" Battle was murdered in the courtyard outside his office, members of Bayshore Baptist Church have chosen a new pastor.
Following a rigorous search involving scores of candidates from across the South, the church at 6502 14th St. W., Bradenton, picked Toney Hill, 39, from Greenville First Baptist Church in Greenville, said Kim Wong, head of the Pastor Search Committee.
"He is young at 39 and he and his wife have six children," church member Tom Bos said. "Pastor Hill and his wife are interested in a lot of things for children. He's very outgoing, very evangelistic. He loves to meet people face to face."
Battle was a victim in a triple homicide Dec. 4, 2014, which also claimed the lives of Amber Avalos, 33; and Denise Potter, 46.
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Andres "Andy" Avalos has been charged with the murders and is awaiting trial.
Reached at his home in Greenville where he has served the past five years, Hill said he did not know
Battle but admired him.
"I told the church during my interview that I believe the way Tripp left was tragic but that he didn't go one second sooner than God wanted," Hill said. "God is sovereign."
Hill said he made it clear he will never take the place of Battle.
"Tripp was one person, and Toney Hill is not Tripp and never will be," Hill said. "I want to build on what Tripp started. We are just carrying on. Tripp did a fabulous job of really shaping minds and pushing them forward. He had gifts and he was a Bradenton boy. I am not that guy and I will not erase the memory. If God hadn't wanted Tripp, Tripp would still be in Bradenton at this moment and I would not be coming."
Hill was born in Texas and grew up in Missouri. From age 6 to 18 he was in Missouri's foster care system, he said.
"Until I realized it was God's plan, it wasn't the greatest experience," Hill said. "But since I was saved, it was all God's plan so I'm OK with it."
Hill decided to become a preacher in 2009 when he was 33. He served as assistant pastor at Marathon Baptist Church in the Florida Keys before moving to Greenville in the Panhandle.
Hill and his wife, Joy, gave their children striking names: Rossen Matthew, 9; Kanden Elijah, 7; Ryllen Nehemiah, 6; Kainen Opadiah, 4; Raiden Forgiven, 2; and Kaisen Redeem, 1. The youngest two children are girls. The older children are boys.
Hill will move to Bradenton on Monday and preach for the first time Sunday, Aug. 23, Bos said.
"The following Sunday, Aug. 30, will be a special installation service," Bos said. "He sees a lot of potential in our church and we see a lot of potential in him."
Bayshore Baptist has bounced back from the traumatic homicides, Bos said.
"Our church is doing great," Bos said. "We have had many people come visiting. Interim Pastor Bob Allen, and his wife, Pat, have done a fantastic job. The giving has been terrific. We continue to have people join the church. Everything is looking good."
The church, known for its large sign along 14th Street West, which will soon display "Pastor Toney Hill," averages between 70 and 80 people on a Sunday with roughly 60 members, Bos said.
"I just talk to people while preaching just like I talk to them on the street," Hill said. "I want to be real. The average person is looking for church to be relevant and meaningful to them and that is what I hope they experience with me. I am not a suit-and-tie guy. I am just a blue jean-wearing average guy God picked to share the Gospel."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.