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Maj. Larry Cowper watches over airport passengers

By Maria José Subiria

msubiria@news-daily.com

From the balcony of the third floor in the atrium of the world's busiest airport, Larry Cowper scanned the sea of passengers below, looking for anyone who might be in trouble, or in distress.

Cowper, a chaplain for the Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, spotted a man he believed to be homeless sitting down and sleeping comfortably at the center of the atrium.

"It's really quite unique ... You can figure the number of people who come through this airport. For me to find a person in need, it's like finding a needle [in] a haystack," he said.

Cowper made his way downstairs, to the second floor of the atrium, and began walking toward the north terminal, greeting people he passed with a warm smile. Cowper admitted that some people he sees every day at the airport are not as open when they greet him in return.

As he made his way through the north terminal, and back to the atrium, he noticed something odd about a young couple sitting quietly with a baby lying close to them on a bench. He approached the couple, and asked them what brought them to Atlanta.

They introduced themselves as Vanessa Gonzales and Felipe Montoya. They said they came to Atlanta with their baby from Othello, Wash. A relative was supposed to have picked them up at 5 a.m., but they had been at the airport, with no contact from the relative, for seven hours.

Cowper told them they were more than welcome to come upstairs to the Interfaith Chapel to use the phone, or avail themselves of anything else they might need.

"I said, 'there wasn't something right,'" Cowper said of how figured the couple was in trouble. "It's something like divine instinct."

Cowper said all of the experiences he has shared with distressed individuals are memorable to him, because each of them is unique in its own way.

Cowper, who is a major for The Salvation Army, said he began his position as a full-time chaplain for the airport in July 2008. He is the second full-time chaplain at Hartsfield-Jackson, and represents The Salvation Army at the airport. His duties include comforting and assisting employees, passengers and visitors who may be experiencing some sort of distress. He is at the airport Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m., to 3 p.m.

"To basically be accessible," Cowper said of his responsibilities. "Basically to talk, to be supportive, to be pastoral."

According to Cowper, the Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy is a three-fold ministry which includes being available to listen to and counsel Hartsfield-Jackson employees, being available for passengers who are in need of counseling, and being available to help any individual who is involved in a predicament.

"I try to get to know people, and that's a constant, growing situation," he said.

Cowper recalled a 50-year-old woman he once ran into inside the automated people-mover system at Hartsfield-Jackson.

He said the woman got on the train at Concourse E, and when the train stopped at Concourse D, she got off of the train and asked an airport customer-service employee for a wheelchair. Once the employee wheeled her back inside the train, she noticed Cowper and asked him who he was. Cowper identified himself as a chaplain at the airport. The woman told him she wanted to talk, and explained to him that her mother had terminal cancer, and had asked her to be with her, and assist her in overdosing on medication.

"What was amazing ... no one got on the train," Cowper said. "Here we were talking all the way through; not a single person got on the train.

"I listened to her struggle saying, 'I can't do this,' and I said, 'You are right,'" said Cowper.

Born in Port Huron, Mich., Cowper said he felt a calling to serve in The Salvation Army as a young man.

"First of all, the ministry was something I really thought I wanted to do, but it was something God laid upon, very strongly, in my heart," he said.

He attended The Salvation Army College for officer training in Chicago, Ill., for two years, and was trained in business, the Bible and social work. He was commissioned as an officer for The Salvation Army in 1975. He met his future wife, while attending college, and married her in January 1976.

According to Cowper, he has been serving The Salvation Army for 34 years. Through his work with The Salvation Army, he has lived in such places as Indianapolis, Ind., Evansville, Ind., Quincy, Ill., and the Detroit, Mich., area.

Cowper said The Salvation Army determines an officer's assigned location, and how long the officer stays there.

He said it has been challenging, moving from place to place with a family.

Cowper explained that because his wife had health problems, The Salvation Army granted both he and his wife early retirement in the early part of 2008. They moved to metro Atlanta because their daughter already lived in the area.

Cowper said that although he was retired, he needed additional income. When The Salvation Army contacted him about an opening for a full-time chaplain position at Hartsfield-Jackson, he said he gladly filled it.

"Part of the reason of us retiring, [was] to have stability for my wife," Cowper said.

For Cowper, the most difficult part of the job is assisting the mentally ill, he said.

He recalled a woman who came into the Interfaith Chapel once, and asked how she could get to the Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Cowper said he told her that she was at Hartsfield-Jackson, but the woman insisted she was in the Atlanta airport. Cowper said that as he tried to explain to her that the Atlanta airport and Hartsfield-Jackson are the same place, the woman became aggravated and dashed out of the Interfaith Chapel. He said he was worried about the woman's safety and immediately called Atlanta police, but the woman was lost in the crowd of people.

"They are incapable of helping themselves, and sometimes we are [in]capable of helping them," said Cowper.