Rev. Gary Cox

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The Rev. Gary Cox, the University Congregational Church pastor who lived and preached based on the message of "love everybody and judge nobody," died Wednesday.

He was 51 years old.

The Rev. Cox was praised by people both in and outside his church for his philosophy, his willingness to speak out on controversial issues and -- over the past year and a half -- the courage he displayed in fighting an aggressive form of renal cell carcinoma, the most common type of kidney cancer.

"He was the heart of the church," said Sharon Tims, the church's moderator. "We felt like he was the bravest, most dedicated sincere Christian that any of us had ever known."

The Rev. Cox endured numerous medical tests and treatments, and he had acknowledged that it was going to take a "miracle" for him to beat the illness.

But he continued to preach from the pulpit on most Sundays, up until Aug. 6.

And he had some of his proudest moments in the time after the illness was discovered.

In May 2005, the Rev. Cox received his doctorate of divinity degree during a service at his church. He was supposed to have been granted his degree in a commencement ceremony that month at the Chicago Theological Seminary, where he completed his doctoral degree. But he was unable to travel to Chicago because of his illness. The church made arrangements to confer the degree.

"I can't believe what they've done for me," the Rev. Cox said of his congregation at the time. "This is so much better, really, than being in Chicago. I don't know how you'd top this."

Earlier this year, his book, "Think Again: A Response to Fundamentalism's Claim on Christianity," was published. In this book of sermons, the Rev. Cox examines several traditional Christian beliefs -- the virgin birth of Jesus, his physical resurrection and the Second Coming, among others -- and contends that there's room for different interpretations of each.

And just this week, the Rev. Cox and his wife's first grandchild was born in Texas.

Leigh Cox said that her husband recently told her that the past 18 months were among the best of his life.

"He felt like he had achieved so much and said he wouldn't change a thing," she said.

After his most recent round of treatments, the Rev. Cox decided Monday to return to his Wichita home.

"He was at peace," Leigh Cox said. "He said, 'If a miracle happens, that's great, but if not, I'm at peace with that, and I trust God.' "

The Rev. Cox served on boards at Inter-Faith Ministries, Wichita State Campus Ministries, the Breakthrough Club, the Counseling and Mediation Center of Wichita and the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ. He was a founding member of People of Faith for Peace in Wichita in 2001.

Before he became a minister, the Rev. Cox worked on an assembly line at a General Motors plant in his native Anderson, Ind. He also played keyboard for the rock bands Tangent, Kicks and Ground Zero from 1978 to 1991.

He moved to Oklahoma City in 1982 to look for work and began attending Mayflower Congregational Church there.

In 1996, he said he had a calling to the ministry and began attending Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa. He graduated as valedictorian of the class in 1999, according to Leigh.

While attending seminary, he came to University Congregational Church in Wichita in 1997 as an associate minister. Cox served as an associate minister from 1997 until 2000, when he became senior minister.

"Gary gave us the opportunity to explore religion in different ways," church member Tim Duncan said. "He opened our eyes to help us understand there is more than a standard, fundamentalist belief to understanding God.

"We lost a great man, and now we're in mourning."

Besides his wife, the Rev. Cox is survived by his daughters, Cara Cox and Corinne Cox, both of Wichita, and Lisa Riazi, her husband, Mehdi, and their newborn son, Mason Gary, all of Irving, Texas. The Rev. Cox is also survived by his mother, Melba Keesey, and his brother, Greg Cox, both of Anderson, Ind.

Services are pending.

In lieu of funeral flowers, the family requests donations to Inter-Faith Ministries, Victory in the Valley or the Union Rescue Mission of Wichita.
Published in The Wichita Eagle on Aug. 24, 2006
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