LUTZ — It was clear from the start — this was a celebration.
Tambourines rang out above thousands of voices singing, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine."
It was one of the Rev. Abe Brown's favorite songs.
"And that's an example of how he lived," said the Rev. Christopher Jarnegan, who officiated Brown's funeral on Saturday morning at the Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. "He meant so much to so many for so long."
In his 83 years, Brown was called teacher, coach, preacher and mentor. When people called him "a great man," he shrugged it off. "I'm not a great man. I serve a great God," Jarnegan recalled Brown saying.
He was pastor of the First Baptist Church of College Hill since 1993, and he spent more than 30 years counseling prison inmates across the state through Abe Brown Ministries.
He died Sept. 11 after his third bout of cancer. Brown's doctor said the preacher stayed positive until the end, never complaining.
" 'Doctor, when are you going to do the operation?' That's all he asked," said Dr. Dimitrios Papachristou.
Brown was a football coach and teacher in Hillsborough County for more than 20 years. He coached at his alma mater, Middleton High School, and led Blake High School to a state championship in 1969.
Tony Dungy, former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, called Brown his mentor. "When we weren't winning … he told me, 'Keep the Lord first.' He kept me encouraged."
Brown was also a no-nonsense dean of Chamberlain High School, remembered former student and current U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. "He was one of the greatest educators our community has ever known."
Walter McNeil, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, said Brown's legacy is in the thousands of inmates who turned their lives around after Brown intervened.
"Rev. Abe Brown, I say to you and your family, your work has not been in vain. We will continue this fight," McNeil said.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said, "Our city is a better place because he lived."
Brown's friend and fellow minister, the Rev. Oscar Johnson, recalled a phrase Brown regularly peppered into his sermons: "Are you listening?"
At more than 6 feet tall, the preacher was not to be ignored.
Johnson read one of Brown's oft-quoted passages, from the Gospel of St. John: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, in death shall live …"
"Are you listening?" Johnson said, emulating Brown. The crowd roared with laughter.
Then came calls from Brown's family to emulate him further.
"Hold on to what he taught," said Brown's grandson, Miles Bennett. "There are still a lot of people who still need an Abe Brown in their life."
Brown's son-in-law, Robert Blount III, read a letter titled Abe's Epistle to the Community of Tampa Bay.
In it, Brown asked politicians to lead with their morals and parents to set an example for their children. He wrote that fighting crime is like fighting cancer, and he asked the community to support prison ministry like they would support cancer research.
To the young people, Brown wrote, "The cliche is true: Knowledge is power."
To those who would mourn his death, Brown left a prayer: "Because He lived, I lived. And because He lived, you can face tomorrow."
The Rev. Evan Burrows of the First Baptist Church of College Hill told the crowd they could still see Brown through his work at the Abe Brown Ministries, the church, the Orient Road Jail and the halls of government and schools.
"No matter where you go, he will live on in our hearts," Burrows said.
In photos projected onto the church's giant screens, Brown smiled and preached.
Suddenly his voice filled the room.
"Most of us in our lifetime have tried to play checkers," Brown said in the videotaped sermon. "It's the most simple game in the world to play. The only thing you have to know is when it's your move.
"Life is a game of checkers. A lot of us have been waiting for God to make a move. But God says, 'It's not my move. It's your move.' "
Are you listening?
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.