Urbana.org had a video-chat with Gary Cowman in October of 2011 from Kenya where he serves as the Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Watch the video or read the transcipt of what Gary says about his experience responding to God’s call for his life and the role InterVarsity, Urbana, IFES and Wycliffe had in the process.
My name is Gary Cowman. I work with Wycliffe Bible Translators serving as a Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa. My wife and I came to Kenya just over a year and a half after we got married, so 1990. So we’ve been in Kenya for 21 years now. The Bible translation work we’re a part of, a lot of our strategies are determined at a country level. And we have directors that develop strategy together with our partners country by country and I give leadership and oversight to them.
How Did You Become a Missionary?
Well, I was a business major in college so when I got involved with InterVarsity, it was actually at Urbana 84 where God really kinda rocked my world. I had no interest in missions, my ministry on campus was primarily to the people playing sports. So it was at Urbana 1984, God really used Cliff Knechtle. He challenged everyone, but I think he was speaking really just to me when he said, “Who’s image in life are you living to polish? You better not be living to polish your own image, be living to polish God’s image.”
As I was looking at my life, what I saw for myself in the future, it was really all about me. And I’ll never forget the last night. Billy Graham used to give an altar call at the end of every Urbana. I remember everyone in that whole auditorium, 19,000 people stood up at Urbana except for me. And I’m planted and saying, “God, I don’t know. This is really new. I’m not going to make a life commitment.” And I think God was beginning to work in me.
The next summer, I ended up going to Oxford, England with IFES [International Fellowship of Evangelical Students] and worked in a coffee bar doing evangelism. God just began to show me totally different ways he could use my strengths and skills. I began to relook at the path that God had for me beyond college.
One of the things I did do at Urbana 84, is as I went around to talk to different organizations that were interested in trying to talk to college students about their future, as I was talking with them, most of them, they said, “Well you’re a business major? Well, we’ll retool you to be a church planter or to teach at a Bible school or do evangelism.” And I’ll never forget talking to Wycliffe and they said, “We desperately need people who understand organizational development, we need people who can manage.”
So then after I spent that summer in Oxford and working with IFES, God just began to prompt me and said, “Look, are you open to me doing whatever I want you to do?” And I…The right answer was yes, but I don’t know if my heart really felt that.
I got challenged by some friends to say well, what if God were to do something different, what might that be? So I remember reflecting back at Wycliffe, I talked to the US Center for World Missions, and Fuller School of World Missions, different things and just realized, I could see this working.
The thing that scared me though was the whole thing about raising support. I mean I put myself through school. I was a waiter, I paid for all my own tuition, apartment, all that stuff. How was the whole fundraising thing going to happen? Again remember, I’m pretty new to the whole missions concept. So the idea of someone paying for me to go work with Wycliffe, that, um… There was a lot of concern I had about that.
So I remember saying, “Okay God, I’ll continue to push on the door until you close it. I don’t see how it’s going to happen, but until you close that door, I’ll continue to walk down the path to join Wycliffe.” People rallied around me, you know, a lot of my friends from InterVarsity, people from my church, people were just incredibly supportive of that direction. So I joined Wycliffe right out of college, the same month I graduated, and took about five or six months to raise support and then I was working full time with Wycliffe.
I think probably what tipped it for me was again with Wycliffe, looking back at how God had used the Scriptures for my spiritual development during high school and then through InterVarsity. And then just really having an increasing passion for what a joy it would be to give my life to helping other people have the same scriptures in a language they could understand.
I remember seeing one of the posters that Wycliffe had out. It was just a blank page that said, “This is John 3:16 in over 3,000 languages. Do you want to help fill in the blanks?” And I said, God what a joy that would be to give my life to helping all people have access to your Scriptures.
So that was just a month or two before I graduated, I actually made that decision and then it was just the month I graduated, I joined Wycliffe. So things moved pretty quick.
I can’t say my family was enamored with the idea at first. It was like, “Look you have this business degree, your options are open, you’ve got so many plans. Why would you go and kind of beg?” And so that was hard for some of them to kind of swallow.
I’ve said no to God a lot in my life as we all have. I remember I’d say I would never be a missionary. I said I would never go to Africa. And God actually just worked it out through my wife who spent the summer over in Kenya when we were engaged. So I was working in Huntington Beach in our head office with Wycliffe, and she had come here. And when she came back and just relayed what God had done during that summer, we both said once we got married if we’re going to go overseas, we want to go to Africa. But we didn’t know it’d be Kenya exactly.
But then in 1990, the people in Kenya called and said “Look, we desperately need some people to come just for two years.” And 21 years later we have no regrets. We stayed on, the need got bigger, and we praise God for the life that he’s given us here.
You know, you have the initial honeymoon period of, everything is wonderful, you’re in the new place, everyone is smiling at you. But then that doesn’t work after a month or two. And you see, yeah things… Electricity isn’t always there, you don’t always have water. Yeah, there are issues.
But God brought some great Kenyans into our life very early on that really helped endear us to the country, helped us realize that this really is the place for us. Something God did for me is I played volleyball years ago, my brother and I used to play competitive doubles. And I thought I gave that up. You know I was over in Africa now, doing the missionary thing, I wasn’t going to be able to play much anymore. God allowed me to play then on a club level team here for five years after we first got here. And I thought I’d given that all up for His sake. He allowed me to use that as a tool for ministry, sharing my faith with people, learning Swahili—the local language, learning how to make friendships. So God just did so much to confirm that this was where he had us.
You know, God loves us too much to leave us as we are. One of the themes of Urbana 87 was the Jonah story. You know, “Should I not be concerned for that great city?” And really what I took away from that was actually God is so concerned for us. He desires our good way more than we can understand, he’s even going to make us really uncomfortable. God was like, “Gary, I love you too much to let you just be complacent.” And so as I look at that journey from joining InterVarsity, going to Urbana, going overseas with IFES, and God was just saying, “I have plans for you. Are you open to listen to me?”
And you know Bible translation isn’t about the expatriate doing all the work. God is doing so much in his Church and we need to find how can we support the Church. You know, the African church’s vision and passion for mission. And so I think God has used my interest in listening and then connecting what I’m hearing to what he’s doing through the church.
Bible translation is one of so many aspects of the Great Commission. And we’re only just one slice. So part of our role is figuring out, “Okay God, how do you want us to work in synergy with other people around us?” And that’s an aspect of my role that I, I just love.
You know there are places, there are holistic teams working in an ethnic community doing medical work, veterinary work, education, starting schools. And we’ll work alongside them and providing them scriptures and so as evangelism is happening, as people are being discipled, they’re using those scriptures, those mother-tongue scriptures, as the foundation for the church.
As the school is starting, we’re helping them with education material in the local language so that school is being done, not in a second language, but in that local language so those kids have the privilege of learning in their mother tongue rather than in a language that often they don’t know.
We recognize if you go to a community and you provide the scripture and they’re starving or they don’t have water, it’s not that God’s Word doesn’t have value but, we recognize the importance of a more holistic approach as much as we can.
Wycliffe doesn’t try to take on everything. We don’t do water, we don’t punch boreholes in the ground, we don’t do livestock. But we’ll partner with other people and try to bring them in and very often we’ll have a role in that such as, if it’s medical work that’s needed, we’ll help in translating medical material into local languages. Sometimes it may be agricultural material, or about the livestock. But again, we’ll find other organizations we can partner with to help impact that community. And then obviously provision of the scriptures will be a key part of that, as well.
How can people truly know God’s love for them if it’s not in the language they understand? There’s so much nuance in scripture, that if it’s not in your mother tongue, it’s going to seem very distant. But even people who are fluent in more than one language, two, three, four languages, almost all of them recognize, when they read God’s word in the mother tongue, it is sweet. It speaks to them in a way it doesn’t in any other language.
Don’t people have that right? The UN talks about universal human rights. People should have access to education, water and health. I think one of those rights is people should have access to God’s Word in a way they can connect with it.
And that’s my joy and passion in being a part of Wycliffe.