MANATEE -- Heartbroken parents.
Jimmy, what he prefers rather than James, and his wife, Rhonda Battle, sat on the tan leather sofa in their Bradenton home Friday afternoon and let their hearts spill out in front of friends and family.
The Battles are in deep grief over the death of their 31-year-old son, the Rev. James "Tripp" Battle III, shot to death Thursday in the courtyard of his church, Bayshore Baptist, a victim in a triple homicide.
The couple was getting by Friday only moment by moment, hug by hug, memory by memory.
"Our faith in God will get us through, and our Christian friends," said a somber Jimmy Battle.
Tripp Battle's funeral arrangements are on hold, the family said. Rhonda Battle said she was not sure she could walk into Bayshore Baptist Church, 6502 14th St. W., for the regular 10:45 a.m. church service this Sunday. It will be conducted by family friend, the Rev. Robert Allen, and is expected to be an unofficial celebration of Tripp Battle's life.
Joy Battle, their daughter-in-law, is with her parents and their two grandchildren at this time, devastated by the loss.
"I don't know if Rhonda and Joy will be able to do it Sunday," Jimmy Battle said.
Nancy Cobb came and sat on the sofa and cried with Rhonda. So did Diane Thiers, whose children, Brian, Adam and Theresa, grew up with Tripp.
"I don't understand," Rhonda wept to Cobb. "He was doing so much good."
Then, moments later, Rhonda smiled through tears.
"Remember when we would all meet at Lewis Park," Rhonda told Thiers. "Tripp was a very active child. He loved life even back then."
Moments later, Jimmy Battle broke down remembering that just three days ago the 6-foot-6 1/2, 300-pound Tripp had closed a phone call to him by saying, "I love you, Daddy."
"He called me daddy three days ago," Jimmy said. "I told him, 'I love you baby boy.'"
Then both Rhonda and Jimmy laughed about whether they should mention that Tripp was 300 pounds.
"Why not, he would always talk about it at the pulpit," Rhonda said, grinning. "He was a gentle giant."
Enjoying the relief only a laugh could bring, Jimmy responded, "You never would want to get between that man and a hamburger."
They laughed about the time that the very protective Tripp insisted on going along on his sister's date with a boy.
They talked for 30 minutes about their son's life, how he was a tight end on the Bayshore High School football team for two years, got a scholarship to Dana College in Nebraska and went one semester.
"He came home and told us, 'I need help,'" they said. "He had come to a bottom point."
They spoke of his decision to go to Teen Challenge in Fort Myers, which served as a spring board to his blossoming faith and enrollment at Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, where he met Joy, soon to be his wife. They talked of his love for the Bible, and how he had transformed things at Bayshore Baptist, including a recent Thanksgiving program for the homeless and a fall festival that drew 600.
"We want the world to know what a wonderful man our son was," Rhonda said. "He loved this community. He wanted a church of diversity. He wanted people to love the Lord. If you didn't want to know what the Bible said, you didn't want to go to his church.
"Tripp was the most consciously non-prejudiced person I have ever met."
Watching for Avalos
A television in the Battles' living room was on, and every time the triple homicide story came up, Rhonda used the remote to elevate the volume, to see if the still at-large Andres "Andy" Avalos, 33, who authorities were still seeking in connection to the homicides, had been caught.
The Battles know Andy Avalos well. He was the husband of church children's director Amber Avalos, who was also killed. They hadn't known the third victim, Denise Potter, 46.
But they but preferred not to talk about him, his rumored drug and marital difficulties or in any way let Andy Avalos invade the sacred space they created for their boy Friday in their living room.
Rhonda Battle's automatic reaction when someone knocked on the front door during their talk about Tripp was to say, "If it's Andy, don't let him in."
The family was upset that some media outlets have characterized the homicides as a "crime of passion."
Rhonda Battle said emphatically that if her son had counseled Amber Avalos -- she did not know if he had -- he would not have done it one-on-one.
"Tripp was always careful to always have someone else present," Rhonda said.
Tripp welcomed strangers
Bayshore Baptist Church members say Battle would want them to continue his mission of spreading God's love.
"Tripp would be saying, 'OK, guys, tell those not living a full Salvation life to go forth and make the decision today,'" said Judy Smith, one of several congregants gathered Friday morning at the church.
To that end, the church will not cancel its regular 10:45 a.m. Sunday service at 6502 14th St. W. In fact, church members are hoping for an overflow crowd.
"We can push back those sliding doors to get more space," said Judy Smith's husband, Bill.
Battle would be happy if his death could bring strangers to the church, they said.
"The Rev. Bob Allen will fill in for Tripp and give the message, and I am sure it will also be an unofficial celebration of Tripp's life," Judy Smith added. "Brother Bob was among many mentors that Tripp had in Bradenton."
Frank Zaken, Tom Bos and Sheila Lay were also at the church Friday with the Smiths to prepare the sanctuary for Sunday's service.
They found relief in talking about the homicides, and remembering Battle and Avalos.
A big man in many ways
Bill Smith had the task of driving Battle's small Toyota home after the pastor was killed. The pastor's seat was pushed all the way back to accommodate Battle's large frame.
"I couldn't reach the gas pedal," Bill Smith said. "The radio came on when I turned the key and it was The Joy FM, Christian music. That blessed me."
Battle preached directly from the Bible, Judy Smith said.
"He wasn't an entertainment preacher, he was a God preacher," she added. "He was a big Teddy Bear. God sent him here. He had a different kind of love."
Zaken cried Friday when recalling Battle, whom he said had a profound understanding for the common man.
"Tripp was a wonderful man," Zaken said. "He loved everyone. He had been down that road so he knew how it felt, you know, to be unloved. When you thought that no one loved you, Tripp would just be there, come up to you and hug you."
Bos also broke down when talking about Battle.
"If ever a man was called by God, it was Tripp," Bos said.
Bos said he will remember to his dying day he and Battle saying to each other this past Tuesday, "Love you man," as they said goodbye for what would be the last time.
"Of all the ministers I have ever had in my life, Tripp is the man I felt I could confide in," Bos said.
Zaken said Battle's "teaching about Jesus' love" helped the church grow from about 30 to 125 members in just 18 months.
Battle was passionate about going out in the community to "love on" people and got church members like Zaken, Bos and the Smiths to catch his fever, church members said.
The Smiths did not wish to comment on whether Battle was counseling Amber Avalos on her marriage to the suspect in the homicides, other than to say there were problems in the marriage.
"Andy was sick," Judy Smith said. "He had a lot of problems. ... His thoughts were about things that weren't true."
Amber Avalos, Judy Smith said, was trying to "stand by her man" and make the marriage better.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.