WESTWOOD For 26 of the last 27 years, the Hilltop Christian Baptist Church’s Passion Play has been an Easter tradition.

Mark and Christine McDowell have been involved in each and every one. Mark McDowell, the church’s treasurer and a deacon, serves Jesus Christ by denying Jesus Christ — he annually portrays the part of Peter, who denies Christ three times during the 60-minute Bible-based outdoor presentation.

The play begins with Jesus as a baby in a manger.

Rain, snow and even sleet, which appeared on the set for the first time on Wednesday, have not prevented the play from happening. COVID-19, however, in 2020 forced the first cancellation of the Passion Play since its 1995 inception.

“It was just one of those things; we had to make a conscious decision, and it wasn’t wise to present it safely,” McDowell said.

Hilltop was eager to bring it back this year. The first installment of the play occurred on Wednesday. Tonight will be the third of five. The Westwood church will present the play at 8 p.m. today, Saturday and Easter Sunday.

The cast doesn’t solely consist of Hilltop members. Several people from the Westwood community who attend other churches participate.

“This is a big undertaking,” McDowell said. “A lot goes on behind the scenes.”

Jeremy Vipperman, the church’s youth pastor, has portrayed Jesus for a decade. He is doing so this year after undergoing esophageal surgery just a couple months ago, according to McDowell.

“During the scene of the Garden of Gethsemane, he sings, and it’s very hard on the vocal chords,” McDowell said. “He pours himself into that role and does a fantastic job.”

McDowell said 95% of the costumes were handmade by ladies of the church, including his mother in-law, who passed away with cancer in 2008.

“I vividly remember all the ladies working on those costumes,” he said.

As Peter, McDowell has donned the same costume for about 24 years, he said.

Wednesday’s showing brought about two dozen people to watch — and that does not account for those who stop by in their cars with windows down to catch some or all of the play.

Hilltop did away with usual bleachers in order to implement safeguards to protect spectators. The church encourages masks and spacing. It is also live-streaming the play on its Facebook page.

There’s always a few neat stories every year, McDowell said.

For example, a former member who attended Hilltop as a young boy showed up on Wednesday after having been out of town for about 20 years.

The man, Kyle Moore, ended up portraying a disciple in the Last Supper scene because the crew was a person short.

“He just came by the church, and it just showed us how the Lord worked,” McDowell said.

One consistent cast member is Zach Sturgill who, even after moving to Salt Lick, always made the drive in daily with his wife in order to take part in the play. He and his wife are now expecting their fourth child, and he likely won’t take on a role this year because they’re in the hospital.

McDowell said the Passion Play is “a labor of love for our church,” and he loves seeing the impact Jesus makes on attendees.

“It can be a definite life-changer,” McDowell said.

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