ST. PETERSBURG — He was tearing into the heart of why they'd come here now. The pastor had removed his purple sash — as if in this part of the sermon he'd need full command of his range of motion in order to heal the mourners.
The Rev. Mitchell Bryant held a microphone to his mouth Saturday afternoon and stood behind the lectern at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.
Before him were three photos, three women inside white caskets, beside three funerary bouquets.
"What can we learn from this?" Bryant ruminated out loud to the crowd of several hundred.
He turned to the story of Job, the biblical figure to whom God granted wealth, and then whose wealth was taken from him, and whose children were killed when their home collapsed from a gust of wind sent from the wilderness.
"You know what the wilderness is?" Bryant asked the crowd, shaking his arms in his white robe. "The wilderness is nowhere. So the wind came out of nowhere. I may call it a wind, and you may call it a 2012 Chrysler."
In reality, the Chrysler came speeding down the wrong lane of 16th Street headed toward Ninth Avenue S. The three mothers in the caskets — Grace Collier, 25, Briana Lequinda Campbell, 23, and Jamesia Chera Santoria, 21 — rode in a Saturn that June 26 morning. It was 3 a.m. on "girls' night out," and the three women, all related, had just left Club 1 South.
The impact of the Chrysler set the car ablaze, killing two of the women at the scene. Collier died the next day in the hospital.
The driver of the Chrysler ran from the crash. Four days later Marquice L. Anderson, 27, of St. Petersburg turned himself in to authorities. He's charged with vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of an accident involving death, driving with a suspended license involving death and violation of probation. He's being held in Pinellas County Jail on $170,000 bail.
But never in Bryant's sermon did he vilify Anderson.
Bryant spoke of the devil, and of the devil's need to prey upon and influence the people of this world. But he did not direct the crowd's anger over the crash at any particular person — of this world or of some other.
Remember, Bryant said, Job came into this world naked; everything Job gained in life, he was given.
The crowd "uh-huhed" in agreement.
"I don't know how it's going to work out, but God has a strategy for this tragedy!" Bryant screamed in his preacher's vibrato, the sleeves of his robe flapping.
The crowd shook their heads and fanned their tears dry. In front, where the family sat, painful wails burst into the room.
Then the choir sang an upbeat hymn. The mourners clapped along, first a few and then more in solidarity, until the crowd of mourners were tapping their feet and beating a rhythm along the wooden church pews. They sang louder and louder and some waved their hands toward the ceiling.
The whole crowd stood. Bryant walked up the church's aisle and out the door. One picture passed up the aisle, followed by a bouquet, a casket, and finally a family. A picture, a bouquet, a casket and a family; picture, bouquet, casket, family.
Outside, three hearses waited.
Weston Phippen can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321. Follow him @westonphippen.