NORTH KINGSTOWN – When the Rev. Betty-Rae Hopkins, portraying Mary Magdalene, sang of God growing the tree that “He knew would be used to build the old rugged cross,” you could have heard a pin drop.
Her beautiful soprano voice – full of emotion – soared and whispered, captivating a packed fellowship hall in the First Baptist Church of North Kingstown last Wednesday, at the most recent of the town-wide ecumenical Lenten luncheons.
“It was magnificent,” declared Shirley Burnham, a church member, when the program had ended.
The pastor chose Mary Magdalene from a list of key figures present at Christ's crucifixion because, she explained, “She's misunderstood. I wanted to explain how it came to be that she was misidentified and [explore] her personal feelings about that.”
She delved into Scripture during her research and even went online to see what learned scholars had to say about Mary Magdalene, commonly believed to have been a prostitute.
“I read it and said, 'Nah. That's not right.' We know she was a woman of some resources but we don't know the details of her life, how she got the money. When she meets Jesus after the resurrection, she's not heard from again.”
Mary Magdalene, she added, had followed Jesus to the end and gave her own money to help him and his disciples in their ministry.
For her performance, Pastor Betty-Rae draped a rich turquoise scarf from India over her head and shoulders and, with that simple accessory, became Mary Magdalene.
“I was there at his execution,” she said in character. “I saw the whole thing. It was horrifying. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
Noting that Mary was a common name in those times, she asked for a show of hands of those in the audience named Mary. The number responding proved her point: Mary is still a popular name. It had caused Mary Magdalene grief, however, because she was mistaken for another Mary who was a prostitute.
“I was not her,” she said. “I was the one talking to Jesus.”
At the crucifixion, she stated, “I was an eyewitness. I saw them nail him to the cross. I watched Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take the body. The women followed Joseph to the tomb. Jesus’ burial was strictly by the book.”
As one of the women returning to the tomb with spices and perfumes for Christ’s body, Mary Magdalene was informed by angels that the Lord had risen from the dead. When she turned around, she saw a young man she mistook for the gardener.
“He said my name. It was Jesus standing there. I am still overcome these many years later.”
Pastor Betty-Rae concluded by singing a gentle melody putting Mary Magdalene’s experience into perspective – that Jesus, who had been the good shepherd, in the end became the sacrificial lamb.
Sr. Sandra Prucha, a Sister of Mercy nun who teaches at Salve Regina University, said, “Her portrayal was very personal; it put us in touch with her feelings. The singing was wonderful. It brought us to a prayerful place.”
Gilda Schroeder, a member of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, in Kingston, has attended every Lenten luncheon. “I find all of them spiritually uplifting,” she said. “They’re enlightening.”
Nancy Mason of North Kingstown Methodist Church, added, “I thought the minister had a lovely voice. She did a good job of putting the whole thing together with the music. It was appropriate for the part she was playing.”
Jerry Williamson, another member of the Methodist Church, said he especially liked the last song but he also had kind words for the First Baptist members who had prepared a variety of soups, stews and chowders for the event.
“I loved the food,” he said.
Yesterday, the Rev. W. David Dobbins Jr., interim rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, interpreted the role of Peter. Coverage of that event will appear in next week’s Standard.
The remaining Lenten luncheons are April 6 at St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church, 131 School St., with the Rev. Bertrand Theroux assaying The Good Thief, and April 13 at St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church, 275 Tower Hill Rd., featuring the Rev. John Unsworth on the importance of John.
Martha Smith is a freelance writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.