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    Baptist Bishop John L. Copeland dies at 63

    The prominent civil rights figure's viewpoint was sought on matters political and religious.

    By CRAIG BASSE, Times Obituaries Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 10, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Growing up in the South left old wounds on the soul of John Copeland.

    "There were so many awful experiences that you really just had to swallow -- things you don't want to tell your children," he recollected in an interview about a dozen years ago.

    Because of those memories, he said, "I've been bitter in my life. I've been militant. I've been hostile -- all those things."

    Then, life changed for the Alabama native. He became an influential church official and a prominent civil rights figure whose opinions were sought on political matters as well as religious issues.

    On Tuesday (April 9, 2002), Bishop John L. Copeland, pastor of Macedonia Free Will Baptist Church, died at home. He was 63.

    The cause of death was not immediately determined, his family said.

    Bishop Copeland, a past president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, an umbrella group of mostly African-American churches, had been pastor at Macedonia Free Will Baptist Church for about 23 years and was elevated to bishop by his denomination about six years ago, said his wife, Emma.

    Last year, his church sold its building at 2361 Seventh Ave. S to another congregation and has been renting space at Hebrew Pentecostal Church, 918 18th St. S, while it plans a new building, his wife said.

    "He was a warrior in the struggle of his community, trying to build a new congregation in the heart of the 'hood, when so many had left for other places," said Darryl Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP.

    In 1986, Bishop Copeland was chosen to head an effort by the Street Ministries of St. Petersburg, which included white as well as black churches, to fight drug use and poverty.

    "There are a lot of people who are looking for direction, people who would never go to church," he said at the time. "You've got to go to them."

    Politically outspoken, Bishop Copeland was often sought out for his views. In December 2000 he tried to make a case for national unity after the close election between President George W. Bush and Al Gore.

    "There's a lot of things we can talk about that's not right," said the bishop, who voted for Gore. "But that's water under the bridge. I don't care who you are, what color you are, this country has one president. Even a hot iron eventually cools off."

    Long active in community issues, he sided with friends of Rick Baker when questions were raised about Baker's support for the beliefs of Gov. Jeb Bush, who anchored Baker's big-ticket fundraiser in 2000.

    "I think that if people held it against him that Bush is his friend, people would be making a mistake," said Bishop Copeland. "You might have a friend who is my enemy, but that doesn't mean you and I can't be friends."

    But the bishop also believed that Omali Yeshitela, the president of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of St. Petersburg against Baker, was right for the job. He was a prominent leader on Yeshitela's campaign steering committee.

    When racial unrest shook the city in 1996 after the shooting death of TyRon Lewis, Bishop Copeland was among religious leaders involved in offering spiritual and financial solace, self-examination and social action in the city.

    Prayers were said for Lewis, his family and for the police officer who shot him, asking peace and justice.

    "I've lost a couple of boys myself," the bishop said at the time. "I know that it is something you don't ever get over." One son died of an illness. The other died when he was hit by a car driven by someone trying to escape a police chase.

    "Every time I hear of police chases, it does something to me," he said. "It makes it feel like yesterday."

    Despite his public positions, he did not consider himself a spokesman for the African-American community. He said in a 1993 interview that he served as an advocate for African-Americans because he doesn't want his children to face the racism and double-standards that he grew up with.

    "I promised God that if he used me to love all mankind and to serve humanity that I would try to my best ability to serve him," he said.

    Sometimes that service meant lobbying city officials for more money for housing and education. Other times, it meant finding jobs for the unemployed.

    A native of Dothan, Ala., he came here from Greensboro, Fla., 25 miles northwest of Tallahassee, in 1955 as a teenager. Seeking a better life for his family, he quit school when he was 15 and got a job.

    At 35, he returned to the classroom to finish high school and to receive an associate's degree from St. Petersburg Junior College and a bachelor's degree from St. Petersburg Baptist Seminary.

    In between, he waited tables and built curbs. He launched a landscaping business and opened a grocery store that he and his family ran for nine years.

    Ultimately, he found his calling in the church.

    Survivors in addition to his wife of 42 years include four sons, Maurice Fox, Valdosta, Ga., John L. Copeland III, Fayetteville, N.C., Jeffery Copeland, Cincinnati, and Jerome Copeland, St. Petersburg; three daughters, Felicia Lockett and Terry Copeland, both of St. Petersburg, and Vickie Riley, Valdosta; his mother, Maggie Smith, St. Petersburg; three brothers, Tony Smith and Charles Costin, both of St. Petersburg, and Travis Smith, Lake City; three sisters, Annie Kenneth and Phyllis Thompson, both of Seattle, and Montez Denmark, St. Petersburg; 23 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

    Friends may call from 3 to 8 p.m. Friday at Creal Funeral Home, 1940 Seventh Ave. S. A funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.

    -- Information from Times files was used in this obituary.

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