In 2014, Dean and Cheryl Cowles visited Tenwek Hospital, Kenya, a place they had served decades before. When they arrived, a tall, distinguished man approached Dean.
“My name is Elijah. You were our chaplain when I was in high school,” the man told Dean, to his surprise. Now Elijah was pastoring the church Dean and Cheryl helped plant in 1990.
Similarly, a young male nurse who Cheryl trained was now a doctor and had trained many more doctors.
Hearing these stories and seeing all God was doing in rural, west Kenya, the couple’s long-held desire to again work alongside the Kenyan people was reignited. They flew home to Colorado where Cheryl ended her medical practice, Dean quit his job, and they sold their house. They moved back to Tenwek, where they have served as missionaries since 2015.
Dean said his education through Nazarene Theological Seminary (NTS), and several decades of U.S.-based urban and nonprofit ministry, along with Cheryl’s career in medicine, helped equip them for the training and mentoring they’re doing now through World Gospel Mission.
Trained in the urban core
Dean earned a Master of Divinity Degree from NTS in 1986, during what he considers the seminary’s golden age of social justice and urban ministry focus. Among his professors and mentors who drove the movement were Oliver Philipps and the late Tom Nees.
“There were 10 or so of us classmates who went into urban ministry. We started that wave,” he recalls. “Our mantra was, ‘Let’s revive the holiness movement of urban reach to the poor,’ which are the historical roots of the Church of the Nazarene.”
During his last year at seminary, Dean moved to Indianapolis where Cheryl, who had finished medical school at University of Missouri at Kansas City, was doing her residency in obstetrics and gynecology. Dean completed his final year NTS long distance. He also joined the staff at Westside Church of the Nazarene, then led by Dr. J.K. Warrick, now a general superintendent emeritus in the denomination.
Warrick suggested the church start an urban outreach, and Dean volunteered to lead it. He contacted an inner-city Nazarene church that only used its building on Sunday mornings, and they agreed to let him use it during the week. It was the first Nazarene church in Indiana, built by Haldor Lillenas, a leading 20th-century gospel hymn writer.
“We came in and started doing a Thanksgiving dinner and a Christmas dinner,” Dean said. “In 1985 we started a full-time ministry called Shepherd Community, and I was the director for five years.”
Shepherd Community has gone on, for 35 years, to be a model for effective and holistic urban ministry with a mission to break cycles of poverty. It has continued under the leadership of Jay Height, who Dean said “has taken it way beyond where it was when I left.”
Falling in love with Kenya
It was 1990 when the couple packed up and flew to Kenya for two years of ministry. Cheryl was an obstetrician at Tenwek Hospital, a ministry of Africa Gospel Church with the motto, “We treat, Jesus heals.”
While Cheryl trained nurses and treated patients, Dean launched a new training program for hospital and prison chaplains. He also served as chaplain at the high school and helped plant a church. Their mission was to equip local people to serve and train others.
After two years, they returned to Indianapolis where Dean continued urban ministry with the Church of the Nazarene. In 1996, the Colorado District asked him to start a new urban ministry center, modeled after Shepherd Community, in an economically depressed part of Denver. It became Crossroads of the Rockies.
“Our model at both Shepherd Community and Crossroads was: Church, compassion and community development, based on John Perkins’ development model,” Dean said. “Compassion means you give a fish; the church teaches people to fish; and community development is helping them to own their own pond. Get them out of crisis but then move to the next level of teaching them how to stay out of crisis.”
World Gospel Mission in Kenya had modeled for Dean how to help people in Indianapolis and Denver progress along this continuum to thriving and self-sufficiency. Crossroads also involved student and ministry interns seeking experience in urban ministry.
In 2000, Compassion International asked Dean to help start a Denver-based office to coordinate, motivate, and support Compassion’s urban partners around the country. In this role he secured grants, including from President Bush’s administration’s faith-based office in Washington, D.C. He also launched CityConnexx, an organization connecting youth with urban ministry internships and mission trips.
A second chapter in Kenya
In 2014, the couple finally took their long-dreamed-of return visit to Tenwek Hospital. That was when they witnessed the significant progress made since 1992. They also saw that the once-rural area has grown, and the hospital is trying to serve about a million people.
“’God, what are you doing here?’” he said they prayed. “Cheryl really got the vision and said, ‘We need to go back.’”
Prayerfully, they rejoined World Gospel Mission in February 2015 as self-funded volunteers in Tenwek.
Cheryl’s goal is to train 40 African obstetricians by 2040. The four-year program is already underway in partnership with Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons (PAACS), which has trained 118 African surgeons in the past 10 years.
In the meantime, Dean is redesigning the chaplaincy school in partnership with Denver Seminary and other institutions in the United States that offer online counseling and chaplaincy courses.
“Our curriculum is African-centric, focused on suffering and illnesses and African issues,” he said. “We incorporate customs of grief counseling, hospice, typical chaplaincy stuff.”
Dean is also field director of Friends of Tenwek, “a U.S.-based network of past and current volunteers at Tenwek Hospital dedicated to developing key relationships and resources that can help Tenwek Hospital fulfill its mission.” In this role, he is fundraising the $1 million needed to construct desperately needed housing for obstetric (OB) and other PAACS residents, and $5 million to expand the hospital’s maternity ward and operating rooms. The 67-bed ward hasn’t been expanded since 1990, and currently, there can be two or three women sharing one bed.
Dean anticipates he and Cheryl will stay in this work until their eventual retirement.
“To do missions well, you need to have a long-term vision,” he said. “Cheryl and I will be 82 in 2040 and our goal is to come back to that OB residency graduation and shake hands with those 40 African OBs who have completed the training over the next 20 years.”
Learn more about studying at NTS at www.nts.edu/info.