“Hope y’all are doing all right. Y’all got some job training?” he asked Christopher Taylor, 23, and Lynard Mayrant, 26.
As it happened, the men had just completed a fruitless, day-long, job hunt. They had gone from Eastover Shopping Center in Oxon Hill to Chinatown in the District. They had hit up a McDonald’s, a Downtown Locker Room, a Shoe City. Nothing.
Copeland shoved fliers for a nearby job training program into the men’s hands. Then he quickly pivoted to his true purpose: spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Let me ask you: Do you believe He died for you and He rose in three days? Are you guys ready? Because He’s coming back,” Copeland said before launching into a 15-minute street corner theology session, which ended with gifts of King James Bibles and an invitation to Copeland’s Tuesday night Bible study at the library.
Just a few years ago, Copeland might have stopped Taylor on a Southeast street corner for a different line of questioning. Copeland is a veteran D.C. police narcotics investigator, and Taylor, at that time, was a suspected drug dealer.
Taylor has since served his sentence for distributing cocaine, but he remains on supervised probation. He is homeless, and with a daughter to provide for, he says he often feels tempted by the idea of fast cash. He listened closely as Copeland spoke.
“We have all messed up, but we have to give God a try,” Copeland said.
Taylor smiled and thanked him before walking off with Mayrant into the night.
Arriving late to faith
Copeland believes that God gave him the “gift of gab.” As a young man, he liked to use it on the ladies. During his 24-year career as a D.C. police investigator, he’s used it to coax information from street informants and witnesses.
And for the past five years, he’s used it, he says, to bring the troubled and needy to God, and to his family’s Christian outreach group, “I am My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper Ministry,” which provides food, clothing and job help.
His personal call to faith came relatively late in life.
As a child, Copeland attended Baptist services with his mother’s family and Mass with his paternal grandmother, who raised him along Sheridan Road, near Suitland Parkway in Southeast. But that religious upbringing gave way during adolescence and young adulthood to the lure of young women, go-go dancing and nightclubs.
Copeland’s police career began in 1988 after only two years at Norfolk State University, and he quickly made his way into investigating prostitution, gambling, drugs and murder. He earned a medal of valor during a shooting at police headquarters as one of the rescuers of a wounded FBI agent, one of seven honors accrued during a distinguished career.
His penchant for women created turmoil in his personal life, however. He became mired in custody battles and money disputes with a girlfriend and ex-wife over his oldest three children.
But the chase for his current wife, he says, brought him to Jesus at age 34. Natasha was beautiful, with a degree from Howard University and a journalism career at NBC 4. The Southern charm she’d picked up in her home town of Suffolk didn’t hurt, either.
Copeland was skeptical of his new girlfriend’s schedule — did anyone really go to church that much?
“I told him, if you want to get to know me that’s where I’ll be,” Natasha Copeland recalls.
Within a year, he was baptized at Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast and had asked Natasha to marry him.
“Something was missing,” Copeland recalled. “Because of the relationship I began to have with God, I became committed. I began to look better, feel better, do better.”
His family expanded with four more children. About five years ago, Copeland’s prayers began to move him to follow the tenets of Matthew 28:18-20, and he felt moved to “go into all the world and preach the gospel,” he said.
The Copeland family ministry in Southeast began. What they found surprised them both. There were many needy spirits, yes, but even more practical needs.
“People can’t hear you when their stomach is growling,” Natasha Copeland said. They would say, “Don’t tell me about Jesus if you can’t help me out.”
A list of woes
During one hour on the Friday night in December when he met the two unemployed men outside the Anacostia Neighborhood Library, Copeland heard a constant, depressing list of woes.
One man in his 40s lost two siblings to HIV/AIDS, and his brother was missing. Mayrant graduated from Ballou High School’s night program at age 22, but still didn’t have the skills to hold down a job. Even Copeland’s helper that night, Chris Watkins, was unemployed at 56, a recovering crack cocaine addict who has been seeking his own salvation.
Copeland says he keeps his police career separate from this off-duty mission. He views it as volunteer work to help prevent folks from choosing a life of crime. But he says he will arrest anyone who breaks the law, including those he’s counseled.
Copeland is a self-described evangelical, not a pastor, so he simply urges people to seek a “Bible-teaching church.”
Copeland, his wife and their four children — ages 5 through 12 — spend much of their free time each week focusing on clothing, feeding and otherwise helping poor people. They hold weekly Bible study and annual holiday turkey and clothing drives at community centers and schools, including the Preparatory School of the District of Columbia in Northwest, where he also teaches life-skills classes to teenage boys.
The couple built an ad-hoc network that collects secondhand coats and clothing from friends and co-workers. They store donations in their garage.
Cheryl Hall, 51, and her mother, Betty Jones, 73, were among the early participants, arriving at a study session two years ago with modest expectations. Copeland told them that a visitor would arrive before they were finished and mother and daughter eyed the door expectantly all night, until they realized that Copeland’s visitor was “the Holy Spirit,” they said.
“His Bible class is so — the spirit is so high it’s unbelievable,” Jones said.
The ministry gives holiday turkeys to residents citywide. This year, the turkeys were donated by McLean Bible Church. Copeland organized the giveaway through narcotics investigator Sgt. Dale Sutherland, who ministers at his church.
On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a steady stream of people filed into the front lobby of the Preparatory School of D.C. Each patron received a cardboard box of goodies and posed for a photo with Copeland, who wore his ministry T-shirt and then carried their packages to their cars.
First, Copeland offered encouraging words.
“We’re here. We love you. We just want to be a helping hand.”
Then he brought the hammer — a brief and direct line of questioning just as if he were filling out a police report, but delivered in the sort of velvety voice that even a late-night DJ would covet.
“Do you believe Jesus is coming back? Are you ready for change? If I invited you to Bible study, would you come?”
Only a few questions per customer, though. Copeland has learned to pace himself. Change comes slowly for many. He hands over fliers about his weekly Bible study meetings, makes follow-up calls and then hopes the needy will attend.
On a recent Tuesday night, Joyce Little faced mounting problems with her accounting business, but she skipped a late work meeting to seek “spiritual sustenance” at Copeland’s Bible study session at the library. The pair met several years ago at Operation Hope in Southeast, where Copeland initially borrowed space, but Little never joined him to study or pray. Though she belongs to her own church now, Little sought new energy from Copeland because she trusted his past dedication.
“You can’t always talk to people in the church,” Little told him. “I wanted to come someplace where I knew someone who loved God.”
The pair sat alone as Copeland encouraged Little to read New Testament passages. Little told him that she walks a Christian path free of alcohol, drugs and other “illicit” entanglements, but she can’t seem to shake her disappointments, failures and fears.
“I don’t want to be the weeping prophet. I don’t want to be Job,” Little told Copeland, referring to the Old Testament prophet who was challenged and tested by God with hardship.
Copeland counseled plainly and practically: Put God first, kneel to pray to show humility and study His word every other day for 30 minutes.
“You have to build your faith to get rid of fear,” Copeland said. “I’m telling you sister, all you need to do is get it in your mind, you’re going to sell out for God.”
“I will do that. I’m sure God is out there. I just want it easier,” Little responded.
Copeland leaned forward in his chair.
“We all live through the storms of life,” he said. “There’s only one way to get out of the rain.”