The Goodwill Church of Montgomery held an emotional goodbye last Thursday to a decorated military man and pillar of his community.
Gunnery Sgt. Mark Hopkins lost his life July 10 along with 15 other military servicemen in a plane crash in Mississippi. The plane was bound for California, transferring servicemen based from Stewart Air National Guard Base and North Carolina.
Goodwill Pastor John Torres began the ceremony as a Marine honor guard escorted the flag-draped, walnut-colored coffin into the church.
Hopkins had been at the church with his wife Patricia the day before the tragedy. Since he had seen him so recently, Torres said that upon hearing the news of the crash “it couldn’t be Mark that died.”
“There were 16 families who probably had that same thought,” Torres said. “I kept saying ‘it’s not him,’ but still, it was him.”
Torres invited the congregation to relax, encouraging all to renew their faith in God, and to release the feelings of anguish that may come with their grief.
“You might feel an inability to pray,” Torres said. “That is normal when we question God as to why he had to take away someone we love.”
Torres turned the congregation’s attention to the bible verse found in the ceremony pamphlet, John 3:16, a favorite of Hopkins.
“For God so loved the world,” it read, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
After a moment of silence and prayer, Torres gave the floor to the church choir, who proceeded to perform three religious songs Patricia shared to be her and Mark’s favorite: “How Deep is Our Father’s Love,” “How Great Is Our God,” and “Lord I Need You.”
With military servicemen sitting in the right pews, and family and community members on the left, the room filled with passionate voices. Lyrics to each song were projected onto the monitors above the main stage area, fading in and out as guidance to the audience.
“People who have seen Mark’s smile never forget it,” Torres said. “His kindness stood out.”
Mark was a passionate participant of services and the church community. As a guitarist, he was easily moved by music, as it had always been a special part of his life.
Robert Hopkins then made his way to the piano placed on the left of the stage. He preceded his musical tribute with words that could only be conveyed by a man who loved his older brother.
“Thirty-two years, 11 months and 10 days,” Robert said. “I had never known a day without Mark before July 10.”
When the older Hopkins played guitar, he improvised with endless, creative riffs split between methodical, planned melodies. This, Robert said, was reflective of how Mark lived his life.
Robert then presented the song he was to play, one that Mark had chosen to dance with his mother on his wedding day years ago: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
An intense moment, Robert played as if the room consisted of himself, the piano and his brother’s coffin. His investment in the performance was evident in his facial expressions and style.
“I thought maybe he would become Chaplain Mark Hopkins,” said Torres. “He had shared a religious sentiment he wrote with his fellow Marines, and they had given him a standing ovation.”
Pastor Joshua Stewart then sang another religious song, “Homesick,” which represented the concept that all people are homesick until they pass, because heaven is their true home.
“There is,” said Torres quoting Eccliastes 3:2, “a time to live, and a time to die.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, servicemen carried the coffin out of the church with his emotional family following behind. The rest of the congregation stood in reflection for a few moments, before being dismissed to the church cafe for refreshments.
Robert, however, stayed behind and made himself available to anyone who wanted to express condolences and speak.
“Me and Mark did everything at the same time,” Robert said. “We were engaged at the same time and our wives were pregnant at the same time.”
A week prior to the funeral, Robert said he had met up at a clubhouse with his friends. He discussed his idea to sing something in tribute to his brother, but did not know quite how to capture his brother’s charm and personality in the performance.
“He had played guitar at my sister’s wedding,” Robert said. “Of course, it was Metallica inspired with plenty of ‘Mark’ riffs. But it was personal, beautiful.”
Hopkins will be buried in next week in Arlington National Cemetery.
By Melanie Zerah