ST. PETERSBURG — The tiny woman with the tidy hair and church clothes strolled from bar to bar along 18th Avenue S.
She plopped on a stool and ordered a Coke and peered at the men cozied up to beers, the men who came to church on Sunday but didn't live the word throughout the week.
She called them all over. They came like sheep, because they knew about her.
"Uh-uh," she told them. "If you want to get to heaven, you got to be like Jesus."
Rose "Mama Rose" Payne lived 96 years and died Monday. She was solid, she told people, because she didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't run the streets. And, of course, because she preached.
She said what she thought and meant what she said. When she was 14 and growing up in Jordan Park, she told her family she was leaving the home church because the people fought too much. She joined St. Petersburg's Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, back when it had eight members and a different name.
She stayed for 82 years.
She oversaw the church's missions, and she took it seriously. So seriously, she preached every single place she went.
"She would preach to me wherever she would see me, whether it was the old Webb City parking lot or the Winn-Dixie produce section," said Arthur Reese, a deacon at the church. "She would preach to the old men. 'Where have you been? You spend time everywhere. Why don't you be in church?' She'd stop you in your tracks."
Well into her 80s, she drove her little white Ford to bad parts of town where troubled kids loitered beneath trees. She stood in the middle of the street, never screaming, just jabbing that finger into the air and telling the people what was what. Her daughter, Barbara Thomas, told her to stop. What could happen to her, out there all alone?
Her mother refused.
"If I didn't take Jesus with me, then I would wonder what was going to happen."
Mrs. Payne had six children, four biological and two she adopted when their mother was in jail. She made the kids get up at 6 a.m. and finish homework while she cooked eggs and grits. Then, she started the daily routine of the three cleaning jobs she worked while her husband, Handy, traveled with the Army.
Sundays were for learning, and if her children fell asleep in church, she put two small fingers to their flesh and pinched. Saturdays, when all the kids in town watched movies at the Royal Theater, Mrs. Payne went, too.
"We wouldn't go unless she went with us," said Thomas, 71. "She wanted us safe. She wanted us protected like that."
Her husband was so smitten with her, he followed her everywhere and constantly cuddled up to her at home. She preached to him, too, every day, to put down the drinks and cigarettes and to go to church. She succeeded, in part.
"He drank that stuff, but he went to church," said Thomas. "She stayed on him. 'Listen,' she would tell him. 'Listen. If you want me, then you got to serve the Lord. If you don't want me, then you leave.'
"Honey, daddy wasn't going nowhere."
When she got older, she got a special seat at the front of church, where the most respected sat. She sang in the choir and raised money for Haiti long before there was an earthquake. When her circulation got bad, the deacons wheeled her into church. When it got really bad, she stayed home, the television always tuned to the gospel station.
Every other weekend, a throng of people she preached to got in their cars and drove down her street, so many cars that no one could get through. They came inside and sang and prayed.
They brought church to her.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.