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Pastor wrestles with difficult task in Lacy eulogy

ST. PETERSBURG — When his father committed suicide, the Rev. Manuel Sykes pulled himself together and gave the eulogy, Baptist preacher-style, pairing traditional tributes with the fundamental doctrines of divine judgment and grace.

Grief stricken again four years later, he did the same for his mother after her long illness.

But burying two parents and preaching for more than two decades failed to prepare the 53-year-old Sykes for what he admits will be one of his most difficult and controversial duties as a pastor.

Saturday he will give the eulogy for Hydra Lacy Jr., the fugitive who shot and killed two St. Petersburg police officers on Jan. 24 and died in the violent confrontation.

Sykes, who will take the pulpit at Bethel Community Baptist Church with a smattering of notes and little else, is counting on God to be his voice.

"I'm looking for a word from the Lord. I think that only the wisdom of the Lord can help me to steer the proper course of remarks," he said in a Sunday school room at his church.

Thomas Long, a professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and author of the book Accompany Them With Singing — The Christian Funeral, understands Sykes' challenge.

"When a person who is presiding at a funeral of a person who was a foster parent or someone who gave generously to the community, you want to mention that," Long said.

"When someone makes a pact with death, with evil, everybody is there knowing that. You can't whitewash that. You have to name the elephant in the room."

Lacy, who was 39, served two stints in prison. He had his final run-in with the law more than a week ago, when he killed Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz and Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and injured a deputy U.S. marshal.

Some religious experts say a funeral like Lacy's should incorporate teachings of God's forgiveness, comfort the bereaved and steer clear of moral judgments about the person who has died.

"There is something good in everybody, so you try to find the best that you can," said Mozella Mitchell, chairwoman of religious studies at the University of South Florida and pastor of Love of Christ AME Zion Tabernacle in Brandon.

Sykes said his eulogy will touch on the personal side of Lacy. "I probably won't go on for very long in terms of trying to describe him as a person," he said.

"I'm not going to discuss his record and the things in his life that were negative, not specifically. I think that would not be helpful to talk about the things that he did wrong, but I'm sure that I will mention the circumstances under which he died, on some level."

Such rehashing will be painful for the family, he acknowledged, "but I think all of them have come to terms with that, that this is a tragic end to a life for all of them.

"While no one knows his motivation that morning, there are people who knew him well enough to see the good. I think the way he died is going to forever cast a cloud over who he was," Sykes said.

Bill Leonard, a Baptist preacher and professor of church history and religion at Wake Forest University Divinity School, said the clergy must be prepared to comfort families on either side of such tragedies.

"It's very difficult and the issues are very complex, but this kind of violence is a reminder that that's part of the ministerial calling, to offer care where it is needed," he said.

"That doesn't blunt the evil that has been perpetrated. Particularly in this case, you try to address the living. … Families are both grieving and humiliated and sometimes, rightly or wrongly, they feel responsible for what they didn't do."

Sykes said he will encourage the Lacy family to love one another, "to hold their heads up, to lean on God and to know that this too shall pass." He'll urge their friends to be supportive.

He won't skirt theological issues. Heaven and hell, very real places in Baptist belief, will be mentioned, Sykes said.

"I just believe that it's something that has to be said. What you cannot say is where people are going, because we don't have that intimate knowledge or power to determine that," he said.

About Lacy, he added, "It is my hope that in his waning moments he took the opportunity to make peace with God."

For those left behind, Sykes will emphasize God's grace. "He wants to redeem us before it is too late," he said.

He will acknowledge the loss of the two St. Petersburg officers. Cognizant of the racial undercurrent of the tragedy — Lacy was black and the officers were white — the pastor said he will attempt to be a peacemaker.

"I don't think that negative comments by any person of influence is going to help to heal those families of the officers," said the African-American pastor, who recently was elected president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP.

He expects the pews of his 500-seat church to be packed Saturday. Given the circumstances, he won't ask for police assistance. He'll rely on Bethel Community's deacons and ushers.

He thinks he's ready to preach. "I find that God works best with me when I try to be a channel of his voice," he said.

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

Pastor wrestles with difficult task in Lacy eulogy 02/02/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 3, 2011 1:51pm]
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