In 1975, when he was just 13 years old, Ed Copeland spent his summer working in the cornfields of Illinois. Although he eventually became a lawyer, a pastor, and a TGC Council member, he was first a detasseler, removing the top most part from corn plants to encourage cross-pollination and higher yields.
It was “grueling and tedious” work, Ed says, but it prepared him for the pastorate.
Detasseling was “a rite of passage” in the Corn Belt. Teenage boys “too young to work at fast-food joints” mainly did it. They would wear long sleeves to avoid getting bitten by bugs, scratched by corn stalks, and scorched by the sun. “It was unbearably hot,” he remembers.
On their first day, Ed and his friends were fired. “When we started detasseling, the rows of corn seemed never-ending,” he laughs. “Every time we got to one horizon, another would appear. So we decided to run down one row to see how long it was.” It took 45 minutes.
When the foreman saw them running, he thought they were trying to skip out on their work. “He went back to check on our row, and there was a huge swath we’d run past without detasseling. So he fired us.”
But Ed didn’t give up. He and his friends explained what they were doing and convinced him not to let them go.
Many of his friends worked in cornfields during their summers, too. The foremen—all of whom were white—would send school buses to black neighborhoods to recruit detasselers. “They didn’t treat us cruelly at all, and they weren’t abusive or anything. In fact, I’m sure they thought they were doing good—helping kids from poor neighborhoods who might otherwise get in trouble.”
But wages varied significantly. Some boys got minimum wage while others got considerably more—depending on the company, the contractor, the detasseler’s experience, the number of plants per acre, and the height of the corn.
Ed was paid $52 every week—except one. “I got cheated out of a week’s worth of pay. It was unjust, and I was livid. I wrote the attorney general of Illinois and the governor, telling them what happened to me and how the detasseling industry was built on cheap child labor.”
That encounter with injustice sparked Ed’s passion for justice. “I made up my mind that I was going to be a lawyer. I didn’t want to be treated like that again, and I didn’t want anyone else to be treated like that either.”
At the University of Illinois, Ed briefly considered becoming a doctor, but decided against it when he got a C in intermediate chemistry. Now there’s no debate, he told himself. By the time he got to UC Berkeley School of Law, his mind was set “to speak for those who couldn’t speak for themselves.”
During his first summer, Ed interned for Julius Lucius “Lucky” Echeles, described in his Chicago Tribune obituary as “a flamboyant criminal defense lawyer who defended Chicago mobsters, musicians, actors, and accused killers.” Ed fondly recalls, “He was a brilliant attorney and wordsmith and the last lawyer in Illinois to pass the bar by reading the law, not attending law school.”
Echeles was an incredible mentor. He took Ed “everywhere except his bedroom”—from private meetings with judges to parties with mobsters to poor Jewish communities who needed legal help. “We didn’t share a common faith, but we had a heart connection. I think he liked me because he was fascinated that I wouldn’t cuss or complete my daily assignment of kissing a complete stranger,” Ed chuckles.
Echeles awarded Ed with an “Eccelaureate Degree”—a eponymous degree that represents nonacademic legal knowledge. “I learned more from him that summer than I learned in all of law school.”
Today, Ed serves as pastor of New Zion Baptist Church in Rockford, Illinois, where he lives with his wife and three children. Although he’s been working for more than 40 years, the threads of perseverance, justice, and mentorship still permeate his work.
Ed has pastored the same church for 16 years—even though people have told him he could “upgrade.”
“I was called to a city and to a church, and I take both seriously,” he says. “This is my assignment, and the Lord will evaluate me not by whether I started with 20 and ended with 20,000 members, but by whether I made disciples.” He perseveres by focusing on generations, not simply years, taking inspiration from Charles Wesley’s poem:
A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.
To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
Oh, may it all my pow’rs engage
To do my Master’s will!
Ed also pursues justice—in both his church and his community. He encourages Christians to seek public justice, calling them to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8). And he works with national and local leaders—including law enforcement—to improve structural inequalities in neighborhoods and communities, seeking a closer partnership and deeper trust between police and the people they’re tasked to serve and protect.
“Justice,” he says, “is a theme I can’t shake.”
Having learned the joys of being mentored, Ed loves to mentor others. Whether it’s a three-year-old little girl who wants him to teach her piano or a young pastor who moves in with him for closer mentorship, Ed believes this is why he’s here. “This is my purpose: to explain God’s Word clearly and to train up others to do what I do—but even better than I can,” he says. Sometimes that’s through tough love and exhortation; other times it’s through sweet fellowship and communion.
But Ed’s no hero. Apart from Christ, he has no willingness or capacity to pursue perseverance, justice, and mentorship. In Christ, however, he finds strength in the One who has persevered with him, who has shown him grace in the face of justice, and who has walked alongside him as a mentor—and a Savior.
“The Lord has put these things in me, and he’s the One working them out in me,” he explains. “He chose these things for me to do, to will and work according to his good pleasure.”
Editors’ note: The First Jobs column asks TGC Council members about their early experiences with work. Interviews are condensed.
- Even the Dullest Work Can Be Done Unto the Lord (John Yates)