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Before Deb Cox found the Metropolitan Community Church movement she, admittedly, wasn’t very religious.
“I was a Christmas and Easter Christian,” she said. “I was part of the Presbyterian church, [and] it has turned out that what I needed was something that allowed me to open up my faith a little more than their rituals allowed.”
Cox, a native Ohioan, was born in Cleveland and first attended MCC in Columbus.
“My partner at the time was Presbyterian as well, and she kept [asking] me why would I want to be in a place if when I signed the welcome book and said I was a lesbian I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be received well,” Cox recalled. “That really resonated with me a lot.”
So, Cox attended a spaghetti dinner at the church and soon realized she had found her spiritual home. She went on to serve the congregation in all lay positions except treasurer. She also served on the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches Governing Board for the Five State Region as well as the district committee.
“I was really super involved in the Columbus church,” Cox said. “That’s kind of where I got my footing. I just found so much energy from doing things in the church, whether I would organize carnivals or we would just have opportunities to interact with each other. We did dinners and I participated in a lot of the social stuff. Then, I got involved in Bible study stuff and worship stuff. Everything I approached and took on I found joy and peace and energy, and I think that’s one of the things that tells us when we’ve found our niche because it doesn’t drain us of our energy, but it gives us energy.”
Cox said that soon after, she started feeling the stirrings of a spiritual calling, but she was hesitant to answer.
“In the Presbyterian church that I grew up in, which was wonderful, I learned many things, but I didn’t learn to interact with God on a personal level. I didn’t understand having that personal relationship with God. Yet, here I was in this church and I was experiencing a personal relationship with God and I didn’t know what to do with it or how to grow it,” she said. “And periodically people would say to me, ‘When are you going into the ministry?’ Those kinds of things kept happening. People saw in me leadership when I didn’t really see it in myself.”
Eventually, after some prodding from a MCC traveling evangelist Dolores Perry, who was known in church circles as something of a prophetess, Cox answered the call. She was ordained as an MCC minister in Cincinnati in 1997.
The following year, Cox and her partner Ann Cox relocated to Detroit when Deb Cox was asked to pastor Divine Peace MCC in Waterford.
“I totally loved pastoring as a solo pastor at Divine Peace and having so much opportunity to do that,” she said. “I truly have a pastor’s heart and being able to be pastor for people was such an honor and privilege and it totally filled my heart. And we experienced some nice growth and that felt really good. It helped me to see myself in a more complete kind of way than I was seeing as a school teacher. I saw more dimension in myself.”
Cox left Divine Peace after eight years and eventually began attending MCC Detroit, which at the time was pastored by the Rev. Mark Bidwell. Bidwell quickly began asking Cox to preach and assist with service. Soon, she was asked to join the staff as an associate pastor.
“Now then to settle into being an associate pastor, which to be honest I struggled with because it was less than being a solo pastor or senior pastor,” Cox said. “But what I discovered is that it really gave me an opportunity to embrace the pastoral role without having to worry about am I giving the right leadership financially and structurally and all of those things. I got to help people embrace their own ministries.”
The Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow took over as senior pastor and teacher at MCC Detroit in 2014.
“The qualities I appreciate most about Rev. Deb is her courage to be ‘out’ on her job with the Pontiac School District,” he said. “I was also a teacher and administrator in the public schools and was timid about letting anyone know that I am gay. She and I boldly married couples on the lawn of the Oakland County Courthouse during the window of opportunity for same-gender couples to wed. Over the next few weeks, our images were seen across the nation as we supported marriage equality. It’s one thing to be quiet about your sexual orientation or gender identity while all of your co-workers know your truth. It is another to be an activist and Deb courageously let those in her school know which side she was on.
“Later, when she and her now spouse Ann Cox got married, she was a witness again to marriage equality and invited many of her co-workers to the ceremony,” Stringfellow continued. “We at MCCD have benefited greatly from her bold preaching and ministry in our community.”
The decision to retire from both ministry and teaching – she will deliver her last sermon as associate pastor on Sunday, Sept. 15 – was a somewhat difficult one.
“I’m honestly not sure,” she said. “Between the things that have come up with Ann’s health and some of my own, it’s a struggle. I guess what summed it up for me is from the time Ann and I have been together ministry has been a big part of my life from the second year on. Right now, as we experience the effects of aging, I don’t want to always be serving other people and not be there for my own spouse. I have been terrible at doing self-care and establishing boundaries and now I feel like I’m embracing that myself.
“She is the love my life,” Cox continued. “I’ve never, ever been as whole as I am with her. I don’t want her to be the second or third thing in my life. We both deserve this time now. And if I can do other types of ministry, or if I can continue to substitute teach my students, that will be a big bonus. But when her health journey or mine requires it, I will be ready and able to take time for us.”