Cox called to Ministry

Former AllNovaScotia.com managing editor and Globe and Mail reporter forsakes the profane for the sacred.

By Evelyn Hornbeck

Former Allnovascotia.com managing editor and Globe and Mail reporter forsakes the profane for the sacred.

By Evelyn Hornbeck

Kevin Cox is a student minister at Grace United Church in downtown Dartmouth. (Photo: Evey Hornbeck)

Three days after Swissair flight 111 plummeted into the waters off Nova Scotia, families of the victims gathered early in the morning at Peggy’s Cove. Kevin Cox arrived before 7 a.m. He’d spent days relentlessly reporting the tragedy for the Globe and Mail. As the sun rose over the water, he stood by the police tape that separated him from the mourners on the rocks near the lighthouse. He wanted to make sure he got his story about the grief-stricken families.

He watched one family out on the point. Their hands were clasped together and a chaplain stood with them. Across the distance drifted a song that pulled at him, one he’d heard many times in church. They were singing Amazing Grace.

“I realized that I wanted to be on the other side of that police tape,” Cox said. “I wanted to throw the notebook away, throw the tape recorder away and just go out there and say ‘We’re human together.’”

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[pullquote] “I thought, my God, it was a horrible loss for journalism. And it was one great gift to the church.”
Rick Grant, CTV Halifax veteran reporter [/pullquote]

For all of his adult life, Cox has been a newsman. From the Hamilton Spectator, to managing editor of Allnovascotia.com, and as the one-man Atlantic bureau for the Globe and Mail, he spent years chasing stories and trusting his well-tuned gut. This was necessary in order to thrive in the world of daily deadlines and jostling competition. And now, 13 years after his epiphany at Peggy’s Cove, he’s leaving that world. He’s becoming a minister.

As he speaks, he reaches out his arms. Cox is expressive. He talks with his face, his arms and his whole body. His signature eyebrows, long and wild, dance across his face as he speaks, his rectangular glasses holding them in. His grey moustache punctuates his sentences with broad, irrepressible smiles. This doesn’t look like a man with a reputation for high-calibre journalism; he’s more Friar Tuck than serious reporter.

“He was just one of the best reporters I ever met in my life,” said Rick Grant, a veteran CTV Halifax reporter. The two worked together from 1997 to 2004, chasing leads and developing stories. Cox became a mentor and friend to Grant. He sharpened his skills by learning from Cox’s style of asking the hard questions with honesty and compassion. Journalism, said Grant, has lost a great.

“I can honestly remember I thought, my God, it was a horrible loss for journalism. And it was one great gift to the church.”

It’s taken years for Cox to make the transition that started on the rocks of Peggy’s Cove. The next chapter began in 2004, when he left the Globe and Mail. He wasn’t happy there anymore. He’d moved to covering the business beat, while Shawna Richer took over the rest. He felt forced out.

“They moved me to business and gave her all the good stories. Well, I thought so,” he chuckles. “All the sports stories, all the stuff that I felt I was good at, the political stories. And I got bitter about it.” As things came to a head, he directed his energy to his church, Trinity United Church in Timberlea. He painted the basement that winter, three or four nights a week.

Then, in the fall of 2004, another tragedy struck. The HMCS Chicoutimi caught fire just after Canada acquired it from Britain, leaving one Canadian sailor dead. In the hours after, Cox was charged with finding the family of Lieutenant Chris Saunders so they could identify a picture of him. It wasn’t the most important thing. It was a small job. But “pick-ups”, knocking on the doors of mourning families, were never something Cox thought was right. He went to the Saunders’ home that night, but he made a promise – he wouldn’t return to disturb them again. The next day, the National desk asked him to go back to the family. Cox avoided the calls.

He tried going back. He stood outside the Saunders home in Bedford, but could not convince himself to go to the door. It would be years before he entered ministry and learned about the grieving process, about how time in a safe space just after a tragedy is part of healing. He knew he didn’t feel the right to intrude. He couldn’t do that work anymore.

“I really felt we had gone over the line here.” Cox said. “And, lo and behold, off the fax machine, comes the buy-out offer for everyone with 20 years’ experience.” The notice arrived that same afternoon.

Though he doesn’t believe that God works so directly in his life, the timing of that buy-out fax makes him wonder.

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Audio Clip
Kevin Cox’s prayers are often related to the news. The Occupy movement inspired this one, written for a service on October 16.

Cox’s prayer

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[pullquote] “There’s something I’m going to do, within God’s community.”
– Kevin Cox[/pullquote]

The church has never been far from Cox. He grew up on a family farm in Goderich, a small town in southern Ontario. His family helped build the nearby Holmesville United Church. Like thousands of rural communities across the country, his lived and died by the church. And like so many who moved to the city as young adults, Cox is a farm boy at heart. He always will be. That feeling of spiritual community did not leave him, though it went quiet for a while.

When Cox moved off the farm and into journalism at the University of Western Ontario he joined a different community. The news crowd met in dive bars instead of sanctuaries, foregoing prayer for power and politics. He recalls the now-defunct Spadina Hotel, across the street from the Globe and Mail headquarters as “a sewer with chairs”. His Christmas parties drew the who’s who of the Toronto news tribe. But he didn’t stay long.

Cox married fellow journalist Janet Moffatt in 1985. Both grew up in the United Church, and both wanted to be married there. The “high-flying” life Moffatt and Cox saw other journalists living didn’t draw them in. They were ready to rejoin their faith community. Later that year, Cox left the media Mecca of Toronto and moved to Calgary to cover the oil sands and the Olympics for the Globe.

“It was astonishing,” said Cox, “when I got to Calgary, how much work you could get done without the distractions.” Moffat stopped working full-time. Cox stopped caring about the Globe political shakeups back in Toronto. They had a daughter. And they both devoted hours each week to the church. Cox became a Sunday school teacher; Moffat joined the choir.

“It was a part of life we missed,” said Moffat.

The United Church of Canada was founded in 1925 when the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches merged.  The 20 articles of the Basis of Union affirmed the beliefs of the church. Its first service was celebrated in Toronto on June 10, 1925.

The United Church has roots in the Social Gospel movement of the early twentieth century. It sought to apply Christian ethics to social problems. The same movement also gave rise to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which would later become the New Democratic Party.

The church is known for its progressive social positions, none more controversial than the ordination of gay and lesbian members. The decision in the mid-1980s divided the church, though most congregations voted in favour. The first female minister was ordained in 1936, and the first female moderator in 1980. The Song of Faith from 2006 affirms the church follows Jesus “as one who crossed barriers of race, class, culture, and gender.”

In the 36 years since Cox rejoined the church, membership has fallen from almost 900,000 confirmed members to just over 510,000. The church now has 1,000 fewer congregations across Canada.

Years later, she isn’t surprised her husband has drifted away from journalism and toward the ministry. It was a slow process, “like wading into the water”, and when he left the Globe and Mail, she knew things would change.

“It was a relief. I could tell he was miserable,” said Moffat. “You only want what’s best for someone. It was hard to see how unhappy it was making him.”

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When Cox left the Globe, he assumed he’d bounce on to the next thing. But though he put out feelers at a dozen different papers, he got little back.

“That was our fortune,” said David Bentley, the man who hired him next. “I mean, he was the most experienced journalist in the region.”

Cox became the managing editor of then three-person Allnovascotia.com, the business news website that prides itself on beating other media to the big stories. It now has 5000 subscribers and a news staff of nine. 

“He was extremely instrumental in the growth of the paper,” Bentley said, “because he gave it credibility.”

Even as Cox moved on to his next journalistic job he was expanding his life in new directions. He’d held many positions at his church, from elder to Sunday school superintendent to non-ordained minister. He enrolled part-time in some classes at the Atlantic School of Theology, studying Roman Catholic Nature and Grace, New Testament Foundations, and Christology. Soon, he realized he wanted to move into the ministry. Two years ago, at 56, he took a student minister position at Grace United Church, in downtown Dartmouth.

When he left his managing editor position in June, Bentley gave Cox a bookmark that reads: “Get out of church free.” Cox keeps it in his Bible. “He can always cash that in,” Bentley said, “Seriously, any day that Kevin Cox wanted to come in, be a part-time minister and part-time with us, we’d be absolutely delighted. He knows that.” Cox continues to write a column for Allnovascotia.com a couple times a week.

Reverend Stephen Fram works with, and supervises, Cox at United Grace. Fram is 10 years younger than Cox, with 22 years in the ministry and first thought Cox was “a bit eccentric”. “It was the hair,” Fram said. But, soon he realized Cox had a real passion for the work, and a wealth of experience from his spiritual background – and from journalism.

“He brings a certain amount of healthy cynicism to everything he does. Whether it’s about what scripture means, or the context of the world,” said Fram. “That’s probably a very good fit for the United Church of Canada, in that we are a church that values a questioning spirit.”

Grace United Church was nearly leveled in the 1917 Halifax Explosion. It was rebuilt to closely resemble the church in the late 1800s. (Photo: Evey Hornbeck)

It’s Sunday morning at Grace United Church with 20 minutes to the service, and families are slowly gathering. There are more than half a million confirmed members of the United Church of Canada, as of last count in 2009. That’s down more than 350,000 in the last 30 years. Congregations are dwindling, and many churches face closure or amalgamation. Cox has left one rocky industry for another.

Cox is striding up and down the aisle, greetings members as they settle into their usual pews. He weaves from one side of the sanctuary to the other wearing a jacket and tie, his overgrown grey hair slicked down for the occasion. He drops a printed prayer that was in his pocket, and a parishioner chases after him, calling “Kevin! Kevin!”

Dick Charlton has been a member of Grace United Church for 35 years. Cox, he says, fit in very quickly, connecting easily with the congregation. It’s Cox’s background in journalism, said Charlton, that created that easy connection.

“He’s very easy to listen to because he has so many life experiences and so many stories and so many parables,” said Charlton. “He’s not so far above you that you’re out of touch. It’s at the same level. He has the common touch.”

Cox’s spirit, though shaped by journalism, is rooted in a nurturing impulse. He mentions repeatedly how delighted he is to be wanted wherever he goes. When he walks into the hospital to visit an ailing church member, the nurses greet him warmly, a far cry from the way he was used to being greeted as a reporter in the same places. He feels at peace, like he’s in the right place at the right time.

“There are times you think, what have I done, I had one of the best jobs in the country,” said Cox, “and I thought it at school… this isn’t me! But then you realize… it is.” He believes his place is in pastoral care, in guiding and caring for members of the community through grief counseling, visiting shut-ins, hospital rounds, and lending an ear and a hand to those in need.

“There’s something I’m going to do, within God’s community,” he said. “You know it’s the right thing because you feel it,” he said, pointing to his heart.

He can’t turn back now. Though he denies one moment of calling like the apostle Paul felt on the road to Damascus, he did have a moment of clarity while building a path. Weeks after he left his full-time job at Allnovascotia.com, he volunteered at United Church camp Kidston near Middle Musquodoboit.

Read the original Basis of Union, from 1925: http://www.united-church.ca/files/history/overview/basisofunion.pdf

Read the Song of Faith: A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada, from 2006: http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/statements/songfaith

The way to the camp’s chapel ran through a swamp, so he built them a boardwalk.

“I realized as I was working there that for others the road to that church ran both ways. But for me it doesn’t. It only goes one way,” Cox said. “Because there’s another force there saying, ‘You’re not going to do that, and you know you weren’t happy there’… To me, it’s the force of the Almighty, it’s the force of God’s Spirit moving through the world saying ‘This is what you’re supposed to do.’”