The preacher's theme was anguish, the quiet sadness that pools and poisons the mind. His message, one that many outside the walls of this church in St. Petersburg might find hard to accept, was that the anguished deaths of Dawn Brown and her two young sons were part of a seamless, eternal plan.
At a funeral service Saturday at New Mount Olive Primitive Baptist Church, pastor Cedric L. Williams spoke with three caskets before him. Inside were Brown, 34, and her sons, Zander, 9, Zayden, 5.
Listening in the front pew, among the surviving family members, was Murphy Brown, 36, who came home early on the morning of Sept. 22 to discover the bodies of his wife and sons.
According to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, Dawn Brown killed the two boys before hanging herself at the family's house in Clearwater.
What can be said to help people understand an event that defies understanding? How does one convince the bereaved that providence was at work in those three caskets, piled high with red and white roses?
In a voice that ranged from a pious murmur to a gravelly roar, Williams — an imposing man with a shaven head and football lineman's frame — implored his congregation to see God's will in the reported murder-suicide that claimed three lives.
"Today, it seems like the enemy won," Williams said, producing a spotless white handkerchief at intervals to dab the sweat from his face. But, he continued, "I love that about God. He never leaves us or forsakes us. Even now. He's with us in here. Right now."
Jesus, the crowd cried out. Hallelujah. Murphy Brown slowly nodded his head, as women in wide-brimmed white hats rose and waved their arms in the pews behind him.
"Thank you, Lord. You've been so good. Even now, you've been so good," Williams said.
His sermon was built around a handful of verses from the book of Jeremiah that describe a terrible drought. Williams likened it to the struggle facing many in today's crippled economy, a struggle that family and friends say helped send Dawn Brown into a severe depression.
Relatives say that Brown became hopeless and withdrawn after she was charged with welfare fraud for misrepresenting the family's income to obtain food stamps. At the time she and the boys died, electricity to the family's home had been cut off because of unpaid bills.
"You may not have gotten to the point that you thought about suicide, but you done had some thoughts that ain't right," Williams said.
At one point, he even cited statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the prevalence of depression and suicide.
"I have a feeling that many of us today, though we're here, we have tears that are silent," he said. "God can hear."
After the funeral, Murphy Brown said he felt as if Williams was speaking directly to him.
"I believe he directed that service, a lot of it, to me," Brown said. "To let me know that God has a plan for me. Sometimes it takes bad things, but he always has a plan."
Beyond her depressed state, few clues have emerged as to why Dawn Brown committed the murder-suicide that deputies believe she did.
"Who can say why? My son asked me why, and I couldn't answer him," said Byron Brown, Murphy's father.
But Byron Brown believes, with the rest of his family, that Dawn Brown should be forgiven. That is why, in a development that surprised outsiders, the Brown family chose to have a joint memorial service for Dawn and the boys, and to bury them in adjacent plots.
Sandra Barylski, Dawn's mother, said relatives are even trying to find money for a down payment on a single, shared tombstone.
After the funeral, family members got in their cars and followed three white hearses to Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Pinellas Park.
At a brief burial service, a quartet of young men wearing jeans and dark sunglasses sang Amazing Grace. A man from the funeral home handed Murphy Brown a large white Bible, a gift.
"In this book you'll find all of your peace," he said.
As the survivors watched from folding chairs beneath a canopy of oak boughs, minister Gerald Watson gave a final benediction.
The gleaming blue casket closest to him was breathtakingly small.
"You are the God that never makes a mistake," he said.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.