A few hours with Mary Jo Copeland

by Karl Noyes

When I meet Mary Jo Copeland, a ring with about a thousand keys on it weighs her down. She’s constantly reaching in her pocket to feel for her cell phone as a swirl of volunteers moves around her. For Copeland, a traditional interview would not suffice. It did not feel right to force Copeland to sit behind a desk and slow down.

Outside Copeland’s room is a large waiting room and things seem to be in chaos. Two separate lines of people, one for help and one for soup, wrap around the room’s interior. Many of the people are dirty and some smell. Three paramedics work through the lines to help a collapsed man. Sitting men, who are having their blistered feet washed, look on. Some Spanish can be distinguished in the general din of the room. I ask Copeland if it is always this busy.

“It’s this busy all the time. It’s this busy every day, all the time,” Copeland said.

One striking feature of Sharing and Caring Hands, Copeland’s downtown Minneapolis center and way station for the poor and homeless, is that it is kept clean. Copeland says all people and human environments should remain clean; cleanliness confers dignity.

“That’s what’s tough about it. You lose your job, so you lose your home because you can’t pay rent,” she says, looking me in the eye. And Copeland’s eyes are vibrant and persevering, with the wrinkles under them from years of helping people.

According to its Web site, Sharing and Caring Hands serves more than 1,000 meals a day and spends over $300,000 each month on fulfilling some of the needs of its poor constituents. Late last year the city of Eagan, Minn., approved the building of Copeland’s latest mission: a 200-bed orphanage.

The children at Sharing and Caring Hands on the day of my visit are naturally attracted to a glass water bubbler with colors and amorphous shapes. “Be careful,” she says, warning the wondering children with Piccadilly smiles and live wire braids. “A child once broke one of those,” Copeland says. “Spilled it all over.”

However, Copeland quickly had it replaced. A broken water bubbler at Sharing and Caring Hands is an apt metaphor for children facing a life that is broken, delusional and harsh. But Copeland is here to replace it, restore the wonder and restore the compassion – at least for a little while.

Meanwhile, a nun clad in blue is as busy as everyone else and a woman in African garb smiles. Another family comes in just like the last, another job lost and another family put out on the street, homeless and needing.

When I ask about the eviscerated state budget she says it won’t negatively affect Sharing and Caring Hands: “All the other charities send those they cannot help here.” Copeland says this with an almost arrogant pride as though the maxim on the Statue of Liberty was her life’s badge. “I don’t have to worry about the government. I have the freedom to do.” In fact, Sharing and Caring Hands receives no government funding. Nongovernmental donations fund the center’s entire mission.

I start to talk with a bishop who has been handing out an endless stream of rosaries. At first he is wary of anyone having anything to do with the press. But I ask him about Copeland and his lips split into a smile. “Fifty-two years in the priesthood and I wouldn’t give anything for the experience here at Mary’s place,” he said.

“It’s always this busy and people just keep coming on and on,” he says, the rosaries glaring in his hand. “It’s because Mary is genuine; they see her and she’s honest and they know she isn’t out to cheat them but to offer some help and compassion. Can you believe we have a three-month waiting list for volunteers?”

“She wakes up at 4 o’clock each morning,” he says. And I believe him, too, because I haven’t seen Copeland sit or stop moving since I arrived. Copeland brims with the satisfaction that she is doing something meaningful in people’s lives and yet gnawed and spurred by the fact that there are more people to help, always more people to help. When I leave Copeland she’s still helping people and the lines outside her office are still long. People just walk in and ask for help. No appointment needed.

Karl Noyes is a member of The Minnesota Daily’s Editorial Board. He welcomes comments at [email protected]