Mother Superior

The terrible compassion of Mary Jo Copeland.

The first time Mary Jo Copeland tells the story, you weep. You feel closer to God, any God, because you're closer to her. You whisper "amen" when she whispers "amen." You dig deep to give whatever you can. You even consider becoming a disciple. That's why she's scripted her tale and committed it to memory. That's why she shares it with everyone she meets.

The parable's protagonist is a 13-year-old girl Copeland calls Maria. In the beginning, she is sitting in Copeland's office at Sharing and Caring Hands in downtown Minneapolis. Like most everyone else who comes through the doors of the private charity, Maria is poor, probably homeless. The flowers on her dress are faded, the eyelets on her shoes are worn, and her spirit has been shattered. "It's so hard being poor," Copeland says. She knows. She's been there.

Christopher Peters

"Mary Jo," the little girl confesses, "a man hurt me. A man hurt me and I hate him."

Copeland's voice fades into a hush. Whether you're watching her speak at a Christian youth rally or counsel a small prayer group, the audience stops breathing to hear the details. "The little girl was raped," Copeland reveals, her lips quivering. "And I told her, 'Maria, we have to pray for the man who hurt you, because he is a sad, sick man.'"

After a dramatic pause, Copeland has Maria kneeling next to her bunk at Mary's Place, the new homeless shelter Copeland has built across the street from Sharing and Caring Hands. She says Maria's hands are folded, and that she is speaking to God. "The next morning, Maria came to me and told me she prayed for that man," Copeland concludes. "She said, 'Mary Jo, I prayed for that man because you asked me to.'"

The room shifts in unison. Men reach for their handkerchiefs. Women pull at the crosses hanging around their necks. The love and forgiveness that saved Maria can save us all. Poverty, homelessness, disease, they're no match for the likes of Mary Jo Copeland. "She's just like Mother Teresa." "She's a saint." That's what they say as you sit stunned mute. And that's what you believe.

But the second time you hear Copeland tell Maria's story, its power is stunted. The tears seem staged. The dramatic pauses become nothing more than spaces on a page. After the third or fourth performance, your stomach begins to turn: maybe because you want Maria's life to be more than a metaphor, or maybe because she seems less real, less alive every time Copeland drags you through her anguish. Then, without warning, the truth reveals itself.

Maria is Mary Jo Copeland's lifeboat. The very act of telling the story both reveals and absolves her hypocrisy. Through characters like Maria, she can wallow in the pain of her own complicated history without disturbing her perfectly crafted persona. She can dredge up her harrowing childhood on a daily basis, remind the world of who has done her harm, and then--as Saint Mary--forgive and forget. She can frolic with her demons, then tell those who come to her for help not to "dwell on yesterday but live for tomorrow." By publicly exorcising her past, she can privately deny the contradictions driving her work and haunting her life.

At 8 a.m., a line starts to form outside of Sharing and Caring Hands at 425 N. Seventh St. By 9:30 a.m., it winds around the south end of the building and into the parking lot, two to three hundred bodies long. Homeless families, eyes rimmed with fatigue, stand single-file. Runaway teens rock back and forth, smoking to break up the monotony. Single mothers fuss over each other's children. They are black and white, Asian and Indian, Latin and Russian.

Inside, Copeland's working the kitchen, meeting with volunteers from an out-state church. In a few minutes the rosy-cheeked group will dish out bacon, scrambled eggs, sweet rolls, and oatmeal to the downcast. But now, holding hands in a circle, heads bowed reverently, they listen as Copeland delivers the day's blessing. This is, after all, why they came--to meet Saint Mary, to breathe her air.

"Here I am, God," they chant in unison. "I've come to do your will."

When the doors open, Copeland greets each and every visitor. The ritual is as much about security as it is an expression of good will. Barely 5-foot-6, the 54-year-old Copeland is armed with a set of street smarts sharpened on 15 years of volunteer work. "She never lets them see her sweat," Mary Jo's husband of 36 years, Dick Copeland, says. "When these guys show up trying to make trouble, she just treats them like her own kids. She tells them to shut up, be quiet, and behave. In the beginning, when she was working alone, I remember she would take knives off of guys in the line. She'd just look them straight in the eye, hold out her hand and they'd give it up."

While breakfast is served, Copeland--dressed, as always, in a blue denim skirt and candy-striped shirt--navigates the center in a near-sprint. She escorts people downstairs to give away foodstuffs and clothing; processes pleas for housing, rent money, bus tokens, and school books; fields phone calls from social-service agencies, potential donors, and the media; and stops in her tracks to pat a child's head or say a quick prayer. On this Thursday morning, Lynda McDonnell, a staff writer from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is in tow with a photographer. Assigned to write a story about how recent welfare cuts will affect Minnesotans, she watches in awe as Copeland seems to rise above the misery. Copeland is more than happy to indulge McDonnell's questions. After all, she's felt the power of good PR.

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