MANATEE -- The Rev. James "Tripp" Battle, congregation members say, took Bayshore Baptist Church in his arms and lifted it.
"He was 31 years old and would give you the shirt off his back," church member E.W. "Karp" Carpenter said.
Battle grew up in Bradenton, attended Bayshore High School and became lead pastor of the church at 6502 14th St. W. after he was recruited from Alabama 18 months ago.
Carpenter said church attendance quadrupled in the 1 1/2 years Battle was at the church. And he credits the pastor's out-size personality, leadership and zeal to change lives through God.
But a gaping hole was torn in church members' lives and the life of their church on Thursday.
Battle was shot to death in
the church courtyard shortly after 1 p.m. Thursday, apparently part of a triple homicide in two locations.
"It's unreal," the 79-year-old Carpenter said as he gathered with fellow church members at sunset at the church, many hugging in small clusters. "This was a great man. It will take me days to get over this. He was in the prime of his life. He loved people."
The Reverend was James Battle III, hence the nickname Tripp, Carpenter said.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office has a warrant for Andy Avalos in the three homicides.
Another victim was Bayshore Baptist Church nursery director Amber Avalos, Andy Avalos' wife, who was killed in a Northwest Bradenton home before Battle was killed, Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube told the gathering.
Amber Avalos, said Carpenter, "was a quiet person who did a great job with our children."
Church members Linda Stewart and Robin Isom hugged as the sun set over the church.
"We have to be strong for Joy," Stewart said to Isom, referring to Pastor Battle's widowed wife. "I don't know how she will get through this."
The Battles have two young children.
"It's just too much to comprehend," Stewart added. "We have to continue his work. Pastor Tripp had a strong opinion on where God belonged."
Stewart called Amber Avalos "warm and lovely."
"She did a good job in our children's department," Stewart said. According to the church's website, her father-in-law -- the suspect's father -- is also a pastor in town.
Stewart and other church members said they didn't know of a dispute between Andy Avalos and Pastor Tripp that could have led to a shooting.
Asked if Andy Avalos attended the church, Stewart said, "He was here a few times but I didn't know him well."
Isom remembered their pastor for his personality.
"He was great," Isom said. "He was funny. He joked. He hugged you. He shook your hand."
Isom was asked what she thought the motive could have been in the tragic deaths.
"I have no idea," Isom said. "I don't know what would cause someone to do this."
Carpenter had been at the church for several hours before the shooting, decorating the building for Christmas. He left the church only a half-hour or so before his pastor died.
"My old body had gotten tired and I had to rest," he said.
He got a call at 3 p.m. that something had happened.
Steube said Battle and Andy Avalos met face to face in the church courtyard moments before the shooting.
When asked if the pastor saw what was happening or was taken completely by surprise, Steube said, "The pastor saw this coming. They were facing each other."
Steube indicated a church secretary had also talked to the suspect in an office before the pastor was shot.
Steube said he would not discuss a possible motive.
The pastor had returned to the church shortly after 1 p.m. from visiting a sick person and, while walking between two buildings, a man came running at him, Battle's parents told Carpenter.
"The pastor's mother told me the man ran up and shot him four times, " Carpenter said.
As of press deadline, Andy Avalos remained at large, according to the sheriff's office.
The church congregation grew from 30 to more than 100 under Battle, Carpenter said.
"Everyone is shocked," Carpenter said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.