In The Spirit: An appreciation of Jim Hopkinson

BRYAN EATON/Staff photo. First Parish Church of Newbury.

Bryan Eaton

Jim Hopkinson hadn’t been to a church service in 45 years. And he had no intentions of changing that pattern when he went out one night in 2014 to a Saturday evening concert at First Parish Church of Newbury.

But his 45-year streak was broken after his gregarious nature brought him into a conversation with an usher. She asked: "Why don’t you come tomorrow?" The next day, he showed up and sat in the back row, where he sat virtually every Sunday morning for the rest of his life.

As our congregation lays Jim to rest today at a 4 p.m. memorial service, we can’t help but wonder what compelled him to turn as he did and make the worshipping congregation a big part of his life. We can posit that God led him initially. What kept him coming back?

It was clear that Jim tapped into a deep truth: Human beings crave to worship and to live generously. We feel good in settings that encourage our magnanimity and let us spread our wings to exercise it. Certainly, that was true for Jim.

Though he sat in the back pew, Jim wasn’t trying to hide. (Hiding isn’t really an option anyway when you’re 6 feet 9 inches tall).

He frequently raised his hand during prayers of the people. He led us to pray for individuals who were sick or struggling, and for hardship situations across the globe. In church, he seemed to find an antidote to jadedness and callousness in the world around him. To share his tender heart instead seemed right to him.

Jim’s generosity of spirit was just as visible after worship, albeit in a different form. He’d bounce downstairs for coffee hour, where he’d take a seat and chat with whoever happened to be there.

He’d show gratitude for snacks in the best possible way: by eating them. He loved to share stories and hear stories. He blessed his fellow congregants by listening carefully to them. Inclining an ear to hear seemed right to him.

Whenever the congregation took up a cause, Jim was quick to support it. When our fledgling food pantry had empty shelves to fill in 2015 and 2016, Jim would stop by with supplies on his way home from work.

He sustained that habit through the end of his life. On the rare occasion when he couldn’t get to church for worship, he would stop by and make a donation anyway. He enjoyed giving; it felt right to him.

For three years, Jim thoroughly enjoyed church life in all its aspects because he wasn’t there as a consumer with hope of getting this or that. He harbored no agenda. He made no demands based on personal preferences.

That made Jim’s approach to church different from our usual disposition as Americans. We tend to bring a shopping wish list and cost-benefit analysis to everything we seek, whether it’s a new car, a new religion or a new spouse. 

We don’t mean any harm by it. We’re sometimes not even aware that we’re applying the same consumerist orientation to every facet of our lives, even where it doesn’t belong. Jim modeled a different way, one that led to joy and gratitude. It’s worth noting how he did it.

In the quest to authentically engage our religious traditions in the 21st century, our friend Jim knew a secret: Don’t make it about you. Make it about God and neighbor. Honor the truth and be big-hearted. The rest will take care of itself. Well done, good and faithful servant, Jim Hopkinson. We will remember what you taught us.

The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald is pastor of First Parish Church of Newbury and author of "Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church" and the "Selling of the American Soul" (Basic Books).

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