BRADENTON -- A crowd estimated at more than 800 celebrated the life of the Rev. W. "Tripp" Battle III at First Baptist Church of Bradenton Friday on a clear, chilly night that would have been perfect for Battle's favorite sport, football.
It was immediately apparent from the way some came dressed that this would be no ordinary service for the pastor of Bayshore Baptist Church, one of the victims of a triple homicide on Dec. 4 that also claimed the lives of Amber Avalos and Denise Potter.
Avalos' funeral is 11 a.m. Saturday at The Bridge Church, 4000 75th St. W., Bradenton.
The pastors who spoke about the 31-year-old Battle -- there were six -- all were asked to wear flip-flops and jeans and to have the tails of their shirts out, just the way Battle greeted the world.
"I can hardly walk in these," laughed Battle's father-in-law, the Rev. Keith Johnson of Wayside Baptist Church in Miami, as he walked to the pulpit. "Tripp had that big toe which he used to keep the flip-flops in control."
Roughly 20 members of the Bayshore High School football team came to the service wearing their game jerseys. They were there along with
their head coach, Elijah Freeman, and assistant coach, Charles Whitfield.
Although he didn't speak to the crowd, Freeman later told the story of how Battle, who played football at Bayshore High School, addressed the team every Thursday after practice in a character-building session and, after much coaxing of his wife, Joy, finally got to travel to away games with the team. He eventually became the team's chaplain.
"I had dreamed about us having a chaplain because I thought we needed one and it just happened," Freeman said. "It started with him coming by to check on us. He is a Bayshore Bruin. Then he started to pray for us. Then he jumped on board."
In fact, the euphoric Battle was at Wauchula Hardee High School when the Bruins recorded their only victory in a 1-8 campaign this year.
"We were both in our second season, him at the church and me at the school," Freeman said wistfully of the connection the two men had forged.
But Battle died before he could see the team break through to a championship.
Freeman said the players feel so strongly about Battle they want to wear something on their helmets next year to honor him.
As people filed into the church, they saw a slide show of Battle. He seemed to be smiling in all of the photographs, giving a thumb's up sign in many others, many of those with his arm around his wife, Joy, who sat in the middle section of the church with her extended family, in front of an urn with Battle's ashes.
Friends said an estimated 1,500 had attended Battle's 6-8 p.m. visitation Thursday night, creating a line that wound all through the church and forced the church to stay open until 9 p.m. so all could pay their respects.
Seth White, campus pastor at The Bridge, where Battle often visited to meet with other pastors there, played the guitar at Friday's service. Faith Johnson, the pastor's sister-in-law, sang. The pair performed Battle's favorite song, "Bury the Workman," as well as "I Will Rise" and "Forever."
The pastors who spoke were the Rev. Chris Johnson of First Baptist Church Albertville, Ala., where Battle was a former pastor; the Rev. Wayne Bryant, of Southside Baptist Church in Sarasota, who was a mentor to Battle; the Rev. Phillip Hamm of First Baptist Church of Palmetto, a good friend; Johnson; the Rev. Zebb Cook of Kingsley Lake Baptist Church in Stark, one of Battle's best friends; and, the Rev. James Ross of Mosaic Church in Crestview, another devoted friend.
Each pastor displayed a different style of speaking, but all strongly communicated the message that Battle was alive with Jesus and that all believers will have the same experience.
Ross said Battle loved God and loved people, honoring two of God's most important commandments.
Hamm said that while it is natural to ask "Why?" when a tragedy takes place, the better question is "Who?" as in who will console us, again coming back to Jesus.
Johnson pointed out that since Battle was so young, few of those who he led to Jesus have yet to die, so they will have Battle to welcome them when the times comes.
The pastors all pointed out how much Battle loved to preach.
"He called me one day and said, 'We had 121 people today!'" Bryant said. "I thought he was going to rapture."
Battle's celebration service was 10 percent Battle, 90 percent Jesus, the type of ratio Battle would have approved at his service, said the Rev. Dan Sardinas of Northwest Baptist Church.
"I think Tripp would have been honored by the service," Sardinas said. "Tripp was a Jesus man. This is exactly what he would have wanted."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.