MANATEE -- Hundreds gathered on a cool, somber Saturday morning to honor Amber Avalos' memory as a caring mother and wife.
"So lay down your burdens. Lay down your shame," a duo sang at the Bridge Church. "... So lay down your hurt. Lay down your heart. Come as you are."
Amber Avalos, 33, along with neighbor Denise Potter, 46, and the Rev. James "Tripp" Battle, 31, were the victims of a triple homicide on Dec. 4. The accused murderer is Avalos' husband and father of their six children, Andres "Andy" Avalos Jr.
Those who knew Amber Avalos best, spoke of her faith and her power to forgive.
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"Don't let a bitter heart take a root; know my sister loved until the end and was filled with forgiveness," her eldest sister, Deanna Freniere, said. "Keep praying for her husband, Andy, and her children. God is still in control."
Freniere spoke of her sister's faith and how it guided her life.
"Amber found God when she was 18 and never looked back," she said. "My sister was a ray of light wherever she went.
Mourners quietly sat and prayed Saturday at the church, 4001 75th St. W., Bradenton, where Amber Avalos had often worshipped. Pastor Mark Alt officiated the service and recounted his memories of Amber Avalos.
"Amber was one of the most devoted followers I've known," he said.
He recalled what she once said to him: "I can't imagine starting my day without reading my Bible. Every morning, it's my time that gives me strength for my day."
Battle's widow, Joy Battle, was among those who spoke. Over the past 18 months, Amber Avalos had begun to attend and to work as the nursery and children's director at Bayshore Baptist Church, where Battle was the lead pastor. The two women had grown close through their work in the church.
"It was Jesus Christ that
drew Amber and I together," Battle said. "She was an inspiration to me."
The grieving wife, friend and co-worker spoke of the love and special friendship she shared with Amber Avalos. She told her friend's family how much Amber had loved them and the six children; how they were her first priority, next to God.
"She was small but she was so mighty because of Jesus in her life," Battle said.
An employer of Amber Avalos, Liz, spoke of the legacy of the woman who she also called a friend, her faith and her love for family.
"Amber made our home a joy to be in," she said. "I used to call it: 'It'd been "Amberized." ' "
She reflected on the many conversations the two had shared and how Amber had always smiled when she spoke of her children.
"Heaven will not be the same with her there," she said.
Another friend, Judy, also spoke with love and sorrow about Amber and read the poem, "My First Christmas in Heaven."
"I know how much you miss me, I see the pain inside your heart, But I am not so far away, we really aren't apart," she read.
"So be happy for me dear ones, you know I hold you dear. And be glad I'm spending Christmas, with Jesus Christ this year."
Nora Avalos, spoke about her daughter-in-law, with her husband, Andres Avalos Sr., at her side.
"I have to stand up for Amber," she said. "I loved that girl."
The mother-in-law shared some of her memories and spoke of Amber dancing in heaven with her son, Adam Avalos, who had died 14 years ago.
"She knows how mad I am she beat me there," she said.
Andres Avalos Jr. was arrested Dec. 6 after a 51-hour manhunt led by the Manatee Sheriff's office and a public plea from his father to turn himself in. He is currently in custody without bond at the Manatee County jail. Three counts of second-degree murder filed by police could be increased to first-degree, which would carry with sentencing the weight of the death penalty.
"Amber wasn't good so God would love her; Amber was good because she knew God loved her," Pastor Alt said near the conclusion of the ceremony, following a video slide show depicting her with her family and children.
The sun was shining as family, friends and loved ones poured out of the Bridge Church and formed a procession to follow Amber Avalos to her final resting place at the Skyway Memorial Gardens in Palmetto.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.