BARTOW — Evelyn Boyd was on a mission to pray — for her husband, her church, her city, the nation and the president.
So on Feb. 7, she locked herself in a bedroom to pray and fast. She brought water and prayer requests and told her husband not to bother her.
"This is what I have to do," she told him.
For more than three weeks, Boyd, 55, didn't emerge. Her family could have come to her aid if she needed help, but her husband wanted to respect her wish to be alone. He figured she'd be okay, just like the last four times she fasted.
But on the 26th day, family members forced the door open. They found her dead.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office says it appears she died because of the fast. Deputies don't plan to file charges because they believe she fasted willingly and her family said she was mentally sound, Sheriff Grady Judd said.
Her exact cause of death is unknown. A toxicology report could take months. And what happened during those 26 days is a mystery because no one saw her after she went into the room. She may have even been dead for a few days before her family opened the door, Judd said.
On Friday, her death baffled family members, Bartow residents and religious scholars.
"Most people only fast for a day or a couple days," said Father Len Plazewski, director of vocations for the Diocese of St. Petersburg. "To lock yourself in a room and to not come out, that would be very rare."
Even Judd was surprised that a common religious practice went bad.
"I'm a god-fearing man, and I can tell you, God doesn't intend you to fast yourself to death," he said.
Catholics might give up an item or two, such as sugar or caffeine, for the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter, but most people don't forgo all food, Plazewski said.
Fasting is also found in the Jewish and Islamic faiths. The most common day of fasting for Jews is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Muslims fast during the day during the month of Ramadan, but they can eat after sundown.
"Lots of religions use some act of starvation as a part of their spiritual process," said Kristen Swenson, who recently published a book about how the Bible affects today's culture. "But most religions stress the importance of maintaining health."
In the Bible, fasting is used during times of mourning, during prayer and to repent. Today, Christians mainly use it to get closer to God, Swenson said.
Evelyn Boyd's husband of 33 years, John Boyd started a Bartow Pentecostal church in 2003. At Higher Praise Full Gospel Ministries, Sunday services last from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. They are loud and boisterous, and a nearby antique store owner said congregation members were known to fast.
John Boyd is a well-respected member of the community, Judd said. He travels to other congregations to lead worship and preach. Before he decided to focus on the church full time in 2008, he held an array of city jobs in Bartow.
He was an equipment operator for the sanitation department in 1985 before joining the Bartow Fire Department. As a firefighter, his nickname was "Tiny," and he'd dress up like a clown and perform for kids at fire prevention shows. He started as a code enforcement officer in May 2004, drawing good reviews from his supervisors.
But on Friday, the main question on locals' minds was why hadn't he stopped his wife's lengthy fast.
"Everyone is just wondering why he didn't check on her," said Sarah Lovelace, owner of a flower shop near the church. "It's the talk of the town."
John Boyd said his wife felt like it was her mission to pray. He understood, he said, because he fasted sometimes, too.
"This is our way of just spending time with God," he said. "People don't understand it if you don't do it. She was doing what she loved to do and what she felt God had called her to do."
Last year, she fasted four times — once for 40 days. Her husband was concerned about her then but saw she made it through okay, so he wasn't as worried this time.
She had asked her family to leave her alone while she fasted. He wanted to respect her wishes, he said.
Even neighbors noticed her preference for solitude. Her neighbor on Simpson Drive, Myster Freeman, 23, would see her spending hours in a chair in her garden. He stopped seeing her three weeks ago.
Judd said the Sheriff's Office is still investigating Evelyn Boyd's death and waiting for the toxicology report, but he said it appears no one was responsible for her death.
"If she had been under 18, we'd have taken the parents to jail," Judd said. "If she had been a senior citizen and she had dementia or mental issues, and someone in that house had ignored her health, there would be legal culpability. But it's very difficult to assign legal culpability in this case."
He said from what the Sheriff's Office can tell, Evelyn Boyd was simply practicing her religious beliefs.
If someone had reported her in physical distress earlier, deputies might have been able to detain her under the Baker Act to evaluate her mental state. But if doctors had determined she was mentally sound, she could have just gone back to fasting, Judd said.
"It's not illegal to fast," he said.
Friday evening, friends and family gathered at Williams Funeral Home in Bartow for Evelyn Boyd's viewing. She is survived by her husband and six children. One of her sons, John Boyd Jr., spoke of a woman who volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and cooked for many in their community.
"She was a very loving and caring person," he said. "She had many 'adopted' sons in the neighborhood... She was the perfect mother."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.