Pictured Above: Pastor Toney Hill and his wife, Joy
BRADENTON, Fla.— When people hear the name Bayshore Community Church the first thing they ask is “Aren’t you that church?”
That question refers to the slaying of pastor Tripp Battle on the Bradenton church campus, as part of a triple homicide in two locations, just over five years ago. He was gunned down Dec. 4, 2014 by Andres “Andy” Avalos Jr. who is now serving three consecutive life sentences for the murders.
And while that might be what the community remembers at first, when they visit the church they stay for a completely different reason.
“We are a church for the jacked-up people, doesn’t matter their habits or hang ups,” said pastor Toney Hill, who assumed the reins of the church in August 2015. “Our DNA is just loving people however they come.”
Since the first of the year, 12 persons have made professions of faith at the church and five of them will soon be baptized.
“We ask them to come and belong, doesn’t matter what they believe when they get here because eventually, they will believe,” said Hill.
If anyone understands troubled people, it is Hill as he was once a troubled man himself. Raised in a home with an alcoholic and abusive father who served as a deacon in their local congregation, he became disillusioned with church. When his father died, the Salem, Mo., native was placed in foster care and lived with 36 families in just six years.
After aging out of the foster care system, Hill moved to Chicago where he lived a deeply, spiritually lost life. Deciding he needed some sort of structure in his life, the young man moved to Nashville. There he met his wife Joy, married her in 2005 and started a construction business.
“During those first years I put her through it,” said Hill. But in 2008 Jesus Christ radically changed his life.
“I was saved in 2008 and on Sept. 13, a day after, I woke up and called my business partner to let him know he could keep the company.”
Hill’s father-in-law, who also was a pastor, encouraged the younger man to pray for God to send laborers to reach the lost. “I prayed but I never thought I would be one of the laborers.”
While living in the Florida Keys, he became a member of First Baptist Church in Marathon Key, where he helped the church reconstruct their building. He was called as pastor of Florida’s Greenville Baptist Church in 2010 and served there for five years before he was called to Bayshore.
“I didn’t want to come because I was happy in Greenville,” said Hill, who was known in Florida Baptist life for his evangelistic fervor, “but they asked me, and I came.”
For the first six months after his arrival in Bradenton, all he did was “love on” people in the community. He became involved in everything he could—watching his children’s sports activities, offering use of the church’s facility for community meetings, feeding families and getting to know the neediest.
“Bayshore is an ever-changing community, people around us now are poor people.”
The young pastor deeply believes that the church is called to a ministry of reconciliation, which is why he is so focused on reaching those “with problems.”
“People don’t want to deal with people with problems, but we all have problems,” Hill said.
“In the Bible it says that we have been called to a ministry of reconciliation, which is why the first thing I did when I came here was seek out Andy Avalos Sr., the father of the shooter that killed Tripp Battle,” he said.
Avalos Sr., who at the time of the murder served on the staff of Woodland Community Church in Bradenton, now serves on Bayshore’s staff as the outreach pastor and is helping the church start a Hispanic ministry. For many, seeing the Avalos’ name on the church staff roster was painful and some left the church. “His son pulled the trigger, not the father,” said Hill.
“I just take the Bible for what it says and when Jesus said ‘whosoever,’ I take that to mean everyone.”