Story Magazine - Spring/Summer, 2012

West Bank story: M.Div. student shares her life-changing journey

by John Klawiter, M.Div. '12

By all accounts, Chris Cowan appears to be your ordinary second-career Distributed Learning student. Cowan, a Master of Divinity middler from Ames, Iowa, went through something lifechanging at seminary.

Cowan is technically a third-career student--she was a registered nurse and then a painter. She's married to a professor at Iowa State University and they have three grown children. Raised Roman Catholic, she became Lutheran after marriage but her sense of call came later in life. "As a Catholic girl I was taught not to hear this call," Cowan said. "I became more aware of the call to Word and Sacrament ministry. The DL program came along and I was like yeah, bring it on."

Cowan decided she would take a trip with Gary Simpson, professor of systematic theology, to the Holy Land in 2008 to fulfill her cross-cultural requirement. "You always read or hear about things and they say, 'This will change your life,'" Cowan said. "But it did. It did in a number of ways. I changed from being averse to paying attention to politics to learning the importance of attending to the news, politics and so on. I went in one person and came out a different one."

Her experience was so profound that she returned to the West Bank in 2009 to teach a watercolor class at Dar al-Kalima College in Bethlehem.

She became more acquainted with the Ecumenical Accompaniment
Programme in Palestine and Israel, an organization that seeks to accompany Palestinians and Israelis in nonviolent actions and does advocacy. After joining the Ecumenical Accompaniers for dinner and visiting with a family who had been evicted from their home, she made a decision.

"That was the day I knew I wanted to be an E.A.," she said.

Cowan spent three months last fall living in the South Hebron Hills. She had three primary jobs as an E.A. One was to be a protective presence for those suffering abuses in villages or at worker checkpoints, or walking through checkpoints to and from school with children. Second, as a human rights advocate, Cowan worked with the press and diplomats, as well as notifying the United States Consulate in Jerusalem of current issues. Third, she served in a humanitarian role, entering the Seam Zone--along the border of the West Bank between the Green Line and checkpoint monitoring--where people would be geographically trapped and their friends and extended families wouldn't be allowed to enter.

"It's really rigid who can go into the Seam Zone. Palestinians, even if they work for humanitarian agencies like the U.N., cannot go in without special permissions. As internationals, we E.A.s could go in and then report to humanitarian agencies like the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs what the people needed, for instance if they needed roofing materials or assistance with food or water."

Just because Cowan's time abroad is over doesn't mean her job as an E.A. is complete. "The E.A. experience is a two-part mandate," she said. "The first part is three months on the ground. Then, for at least 12 months after, public speaking and public advocacy are expected."

When pushed for how this experience will affect her long-term vision of ministry, Cowan was reluctant to be specific. After all, if asked five years ago whether she'd be an E.A., she wouldn't have imagined doing what she did.

"I don't know what God has in mind. I can tell you that the experience will have an impact on the way I'm thinking about ministry," Cowan said.

"This experience has given me a strong interest in cross-cultural engagement. I've come to understand that it's important to realize that we live in many layers of context, not only that of the local congregation but also the global context and eco-context.


For more information about the EAPPI, visit its website at www.eappi.org.

You can read more about Cowan's experience at her blog, christiarts.wordpress.com.