First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg's pastor again hosts a mourning city

ST. PETERSBURG

The days had been long, 14 hours at times, and just when the varied but often unpredictable routine that is a preacher's life had returned, the Rev. Walter Draughon III got the call.

"Not again. Not again,'' he thought.

His First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg would again overflow with mourners, echo with wailing bagpipes and bear witness to honor guards following their solemn regimen. Outside on the 20-acre grounds, the last call would signal the end of the watch of another St. Petersburg police officer killed in the line of duty.

Draughon, a pastor for 35 years, recalled his visceral reaction to the new tragedy.

"I was angry,'' he said. "I was very sad, and I was immediately doubtful of God. I think all of us were."

He acknowledged those emotions at the funeral.

"I'm big on stating the obvious. If there is a gorilla in the kitchen, I can't stand to step around that dude. The first thing for me was to state the obvious. I am, we are, angry, disillusioned, afraid, which are normal reactions to tragedy. And we're asking, 'Where are you, God?' " said Draughon, who can be both folksy and professorial.

The questions came as St. Petersburg, which had not lost a police officer in the line of duty since 1980, mourned the deaths of Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger, 48, and Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, 39, who were killed Jan. 24 by fugitive Hydra Lacy Jr. The questions took on even more urgency when Officer David Crawford, 46, was shot and killed on Feb. 21. Nicholas Lindsey, 16, has been charged.

"For me, God is with us, suffering with us,'' Draughon said.

Maj. Melanie Bevan, who helped coordinate the services with St. Petersburg officers, other city staff, Pinellas County sheriff's deputies and officers from the Tampa Police Department, said Draughon and his staff provided spiritual support.

"Mornings that we would meet, probably 75 people … we always had one of the pastors every time,'' she said.

"Pastor Draughon, he'd gather us all up and provide a prayer and ask for strength for us to perform our duties."

By the time the funerals were over, the officers had been on the church campus for nearly two weeks, bringing in thousands of extra chairs, rearranging rooms and using the kitchen.

"You just have to consider that we showed up at this church and, in a sense, we took it over. We were there 12 to 14 hours every day. The pastoral staff, they never left,'' Bevan said.

"Here is a man who leads a congregation of thousands of people, and he lets me walk into his church and he completely defers authority to me in his house.''

Police Chief Chuck Harmon was also impressed.

"The first moment he met you, he could talk to you about anything,'' he said. "He basically was very good at putting people at ease given the gravity of the situation that we were all there for."

Draughon downplayed the praise. "Here we are with a crisis, and we were honored to be able to meet it.''

He said he didn't hesitate when his friend Mayor Bill Foster approached him about hosting the service for the first two officers.

"If the church is anything, it better be here to serve people, to serve community. I'm a pastor, and one of my roles is to help any person, anyhow, anyway I can,'' he said.

Like First Baptist, the David C. Gross Funeral Home, whose founder's wife, Pati Gross, is a more than 30-year veteran of the Police Department, also donated services.

"We have served members of the St. Petersburg Police Department and their families for many years … . We were contacted by the department to ask if we could assist them. And without hesitation, it was a privilege to do so,'' said David Gross.

For Draughon, having the services at First Baptist also meant being called upon to comfort Officer Crawford's family and colleagues. The Baitinger and Yaslowitz families had their own pastors, who presided over that service with Draughon. Working with them was "a piece of cake," he said.

"We're all on the same team,'' he said, adding that it would not have mattered if their philosophies had differed. "The truth is many-sided.''

Draughon, comfortable in the suits he wore for the funerals and in frayed jeans and scuffed shoes during a casual day at the office, is not sidetracked by controversy.

His congregation lost close to two dozen major donors when he commissioned a sculpture of Jesus on a cross that rises 18 feet in the Baptist church's lobby.

Draughon also keeps a book on display in his office — Walter the Farting Dog that was a gift from younger congregation members. It keeps him grounded, he said.

In 1996, when racial disturbances erupted shortly after he moved here from Little Rock, Ark., Draughon rushed to the area to see how he could help. Police turned him away.

In the years since, his congregation of 3,000 has become increasingly diverse and now is 20 percent black.

He opened his church to handle a community's grief. But, said Draughon, he would have acted no differently than the Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church, who hosted Lacy's funeral.

"I believe every human being meets God at various times during life and certainly at death, and the God this man met is a God who is loving and just, a God who forgives sin and allows us to realize the consequences of our sin," he said.

Draughon would like to see the city heal.

"Where there is racial tension, we must give up bigotry, or we're going to kill ourselves,'' he said.

"Where there is apathy in respect to our public schools, it's our responsibility to respond to that apathy with our involvement. Where there is a lack of courage and morality on the part of our parents, we must turn to God, who alone can heal our families, teach us to parent and enable us to embrace across religious, racial and socio-economic fences.''

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

The Rev. Walter Draughon III

Age: 55

Education: Bachelor's degree, Samford University, Birmingham, Ala.; master's, Ph.D., South­western Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.

First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg's pastor again hosts a mourning city 03/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 3:31am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...