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The extraordinary, ordinary life of Minda Cox

BOLIVAR, Missouri — On her way to church Sunday morning, a young woman in an electric wheelchair cut through the sloping campus of Southwest Baptist University, her alma mater.

At church, she sat in the aisle of the sun-filled sanctuary and prayed, sang, and celebrated communion with her mother, sister, nieces and nephews.

After the service, she shared a meal with members of the congregation, and talked about her trips to India, Botswana, and Honduras, and how blessed she was to be able to travel.

The book she wrote was displayed in the dining area, and her mother, the priest, proudly gave a copy to one of the newer church members.

That afternoon, she went to the art gallery on the square, where she teaches a class and offers her watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings for sale.

Then she went home and started putting together packages of Christmas cookies for family and friends.

It was another extraordinary, ordinary day in the life of Minda Catherine Cox.

Minda Cox spent six months studying in Botswana in 2012 as a Southwest Baptist University student. (Credit: Cox family)
Minda Cox spent six months studying in Botswana in 2012 as a Southwest Baptist University student. (Credit: Cox family)

“To live without arms or legs is sometimes a heavy burden, and carrying it wears me out,” Minda wrote in “ opens in a new windowOrdinary,” the autobiography she published in 2014. “God gives me rest.”

Minda was born in a village in India 33 years ago and adopted 22 months later by a nurse from America.

She was born without legs and arms, an extremely rare birth defect known as congenital amputation.

But she was raised to believe that everybody has value, meaning and purpose.

That every life is an extraordinary gift from God.

That even someone without arms and legs can be the hands and feet of Christ.

“We continue to be amazed at Minda’s accomplishments in life. Her life and faith inspires us all,” said Rev. Joe Porter, a retired Episcopal priest who got to know Minda when she moved to Memphis with her adoptive mother in 1998.

“Her sheer confidence in God’s intervention in her life through her faith in Jesus is an example of a faith far greater than mine.”

* * *

Minda’s electric wheelchair has an actuator that raises and lowers her as needed. (Credit: Cox family)
Minda’s electric wheelchair has an actuator that raises and lowers her as needed. (Credit: Cox family)

It takes Minda about 30 minutes to get to church every Sunday morning in her electric wheelchair.

She could ride to church with someone. Her mother, Rev. Cathy Cox, is the priest at  opens in a new windowSt. Alban’s Episcopal Church. Her older sister, Becky, is a member.

Minda prefers to make it on her own.

“She gets weary. Sometimes she cries and gets upset,” Cox said. “But it never lasts very long because she’s honest about that, and she isn’t afraid to ask for help, and she’s quick to thank those who do.”

Minda wasn’t afraid to ask the city, county and state for help making Bolivar’s sidewalks more accessible.

“She’s been very determined and very helpful,” said Chris Warwick, mayor of Bolivar, a town of about 11,000 about 30 miles north of Springfield.

Minda is thankful to everyone who helps her make it through the day.

The officials who made the sidewalks around town easy to navigate.

The clerks at Walgreens who installed a shopping basket on the back of her wheelchair.

The students and staff at the college who keep the campus sidewalks clear of ice and snow.

Her family and fellow church members and artists who love, encourage, and inspire her.

“Everybody has been so gracious,” Minda said. “People watch out for me, although I really don’t need anyone’s help.”

She loves the freedom she feels in her electric wheelchair, the mobility it gives her, the perspective it provides.

“Even if I had a car, I don’t think I’d use it much,” Minda said. “If I had legs, I’d walk all the time.”

* * *

Minda at Missouri’s Bennett Spring State Park near Bolivar in 2019. (Credit: Cox family)
Minda at Missouri’s Bennett Spring State Park near Bolivar in 2019. (Credit: Cox family)

When Minda was about 4, she was fitted for two little plastic, prosthetic legs. For the first time in her life, she stood up. She wore socks and pretty, pink shoes.

Still, she couldn’t walk. Without arms, she had no way to hold crutches or balance herself.

A year later, she was fitted for plastic, prosthetic arms with hooks for hands. For the first time in her life, she held things. A Popsicle stick. A lighted candle at a Christmas Eve service.

Still, she couldn’t feel anything she held. The softness of a towel. The cold of fallen snow. The warmth of her mother’s hug.

“Other people did treat me differently when they saw me ‘whole’ with arms and legs,” she wrote. “But being myself also was important. I felt like I was lost inside all that plastic.”

Without prosthetics, little Minda had learned how to draw, color and write by holding things between her chin and right shoulder and manipulating them with her neck and shoulder muscles.

She could get herself into and out of bed, talk on the phone, play Nintendo, eat and drink, ‘walk’ and even climb stairs by using her partial feet and hips to propel her.

“With my protheses, I struggled to do any of those things,” she wrote. “Everyone wanted to make life easier for me. But these efforts to make me ‘normal’ made me even more handicapped.”

She put her fake arms and legs in a closet and never put them on again.

“Minda is a joyful mystery,” Cox said. “She was like this as a baby. I think really part of it is her genetic makeup. She wanted to do everything. She has always found a way.”

* * *

Minda was born in India without arms and legs, a rare birth defect known as congenital amputation. (Credit: Cox family)
Minda was born in India without arms and legs, a rare birth defect known as congenital amputation. (Credit: Cox family)

After Minda was born, her young, impoverished, overwhelmed parents took her to a hospital and left her there.

Cox, then a nurse, adopted Minda 22 months later from an Indian children’s home called Ashraya. “They nurtured her so incredibly well,” Cox said.

Cox already had adopted four girls with various disabilities from various parts of the world.

Becky, a malnourished, 5-pound newborn who was dying in Haiti.

Debbie, an 8-year-old orphan and trauma victim in Brazil.

Shanti, an orphan in India who was born legally blind, deaf, and mentally handicapped.

Jaya, a 4-year-old orphan with spina bifida in India.

“Mom didn’t believe that she had rescued us from an evil place or a backward one,” Minda wrote. “Her sense was that she had provided a home for children who needed one.”

Minda and her sisters were raised in a home that welcomed other disabled foster children from other parts of the world.

“Mom thought we ought to know there were plenty of other children in need all over the world, and that together we had the privilege of making life better for some of them,” Minda wrote.

Jaya lives in the Virgin Islands now. Debbie and Shanti live in Los Angeles. Becky and Minda live in Bolivar.

Becky has adopted six children of her own. Five of the six have prenatal drug history.

“My kids live eight minutes from granny’s,” Becky said. “I guess I followed in my mother’s footsteps. She always told us your disability is what you make of it.”

* * *

Minda (lower right), age 4, with her temporary prosthetic legs, sitting next to her mother, Cathy Cox, with her sisters (right to left) Shanti, Debbie (and Debbie’s baby daughter), Becky and Jaya. (Credit: Cox family)
Minda (lower right), age 4, with her temporary prosthetic legs, sitting next to her mother, Cathy Cox, with her sisters (right to left) Shanti, Debbie (and Debbie’s baby daughter), Becky and Jaya. (Credit: Cox family)

Cox moved her family from New Mexico to Memphis in 1998 to help establish Rivendell, a new ministry of Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Minda was 10. She lived with her mother and sister, Jaya, in a house across the street from the Midtown church.

The Rivendell House became the center of an intentional Christian community. Each day at Rivendell was framed by short prayer services at morning, noon, early evening, and day’s end.

Minda was surrounded by supportive, encouraging members of the community who called themselves companions. They ate together often, studied scripture, and prayed for each other and the parish.

“We are trying to spend as much time as possible in God’s presence in order to build our relationships with God, and our relationships with each other in that presence,” Rev. Virginia Brown, who had met Cox and her daughters when they all lived in New Mexico, explained in 1998. Brown died in 2020 at age 72.

“I loved growing up in community,” Minda said. “It made me feel special.”

In 2002, Brown was called to become rector of a church in Springfield, Missouri. By then, Cox was in the process of becoming an Episcopal priest. Brown invited her to open a second Rivendell Community house in southwest Missouri.

Cox, now 75, was ordained in 2003 and became rector of St. Alban’s in Bolivar in 2004.

Once again, Minda was surrounded by a community of faith in her church and in the wider  opens in a new windowRivendell Community, which now has members in six states. The Emmaus chapter in Memphis includes  opens in a new windowConstance Abbey, a Rivendell community house next to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.

“Mom specifically urged us to collect as many ‘mothers’ as we could. Those caring adults taught us all sorts of things and gave us loads of attention,” Minda wrote.

“I also told her not to be afraid of strangers,” Cox said, “because she would always need other people. And I told her also to speak to people first, not to be defensive but assertive and to put others at ease.”

* * *

Minda was 10 when her family moved from New Mexico to Memphis to live in the Rivendell Christian Community. (Credit: Cox family)
Minda was 10 when her family moved from New Mexico to Memphis to live in the Rivendell Christian Community. (Credit: Cox family)

Minda was home-schooled in New Mexico, but when the family moved to Memphis, she told her mom she wanted to attend a “real” school.

Idlewild Elementary was four blocks away, but school district officials said that school and others nearby didn’t have room or access for Minda.

Instead, the district placed her at Kingsbury Elementary, where 30% of students were disabled. Minda spent two hours on a school bus every day.

Minda said she was bullied on the bus and penalized in the classroom for completing assignments too slowly.

”For the first time in my life I became truly dis-abled, and I felt it,” Minda wrote.

Fourth-graders learn to play the recorder. Cox asked the school if Minda could play the xylophone instead since she obviously couldn’t finger a recorder but could hold a mallet.

Her request was denied. Instead, another fourth-grader was assigned to stand behind Minda and finger the recorder while Minda blew into it.

Cox spent months trying to get Minda transferred. Eventually, she appealed to an administrative law judge and Minda was transferred to the University of Memphis Campus School. She finished fourth and fifth grades there.

“Minda has never had a chance to think she was unloved,” Cox said. “Except that first awful experience at Kingsbury, and even then she was confident enough to be mad and determined rather than crushed.”

* * *

Minda signs copies of her 2014 autobiography, “Ordinary.” She learned to write by tucking a pencil between her right shoulder and chin. (Credit: Cox family)
Minda signs copies of her 2014 autobiography, “Ordinary.” She learned to write by tucking a pencil between her right shoulder and chin. (Credit: Cox family)

When the family moved to Missouri, Minda was home-schooled again. She told her mother she wanted to take an art class. She loved to draw.

A church member who taught at nearby Southwest Baptist University recommended Emily Frost, a local artist, and the wife of another SBU professor.

Minda’s weekly art class became a course in art history, theory and practice, as well as personal discovery.

When Minda got discouraged, Frost reminded her that learning was a process, not a product.

“She tried to teach me that my brain and eye and little arm had to learn to work together, and that would take time,” Minda wrote.

When Minda worried what others would think of her art, Frost told her to “make God your only audience,” and to ask, “What might God want to communicate through my drawing?”

Minda began to see art not just as a form of expression but as a spiritual practice.

“I discovered how God was at work in me, creating my life as His careful and beautiful creation, with necessary dark shadows as well as areas of bright color,” Minda wrote.

The university’s art gallery hosted Minda’s first exhibit — mostly watercolors — in 2006.

Her art is now displayed at the  opens in a new windowArt Sync Gallery on Bolivar’s square, where she also teaches art classes every week. It’s also available on her website,  opens in a new windowmindacox.net.

“I am so proud of her,” Becky said. “Her art is an amazing expression of her beautiful spirit.”

* * *

Minda took art lessons from Emily Frost, a Missouri artist who taught her to “make God your only audience.” (Credit: Cox family)
Minda took art lessons from Emily Frost, a Missouri artist who taught her to “make God your only audience.” (Credit: Cox family)

After Minda earned a GED, she took a class on spiritual formation at  opens in a new windowSouthwest Baptist University, a block from her house.

She took another class, then another. She took 17 hours of classes before she officially enrolled as a full-time student, majoring in intercultural studies and communication.

The university encouraged students to travel on mission trips and required them to study six months abroad.

In every new setting, Minda tried to practice what Dr. Jim Frost preached in his intercultural classes.

“It is very important that you enter a new culture the way Jesus entered the world, as an infant, having to learn everything, dependent on others to show him what it meant to be part of a community,” Minda wrote.

Minda spent two weeks at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where she consoled children racked by poverty, violence and hopelessness.

She spent six months in Botswana, where she comforted children orphaned by poverty, disease, and hatred.

In Botswana, she met a young woman whose arms and legs had been amputated due to an infection. Minda showed her how she fed herself and her spirit.

“She had lost only her arms and legs, not her mind, her beauty, her strength, or her determination,” Minda wrote.

After Minda graduated, she traveled by herself to Honduras, where she counseled young women who had been abandoned by poverty, violence and fear.

She also traveled to Haiti with a Memphis-based medical missions team, the  opens in a new windowWest Tennessee Haiti Partnership, and encouraged children at the St. Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children.

“She was fiercely independent,” said Dr. Susan Nelson, a Memphis physician who led the medical mission team. “Seeing Minda and working with her opened those Haitian children’s eyes to another world; one where you can paint with no arms, travel to other countries, and be someone important and influential despite having no arms or legs.”

Minda still gives lessons in art, faith, and life to elementary school children, college students, and church groups, although the pandemic has curtailed her travels. She visited Bruce Elementary in Memphis in 2018.

When Minda graduated in 2013, she was chosen to deliver the Senior Speech.

“We know our life counts. We know that what we do with it matters,” she told her fellow graduate, faculty, family and friends. “And we know that God can be trusted. Pray for us that we will walk worthy of these gifts and offer them freely to others in the service of Jesus Christ.”

* * *

Minda visited Honduras in 2013, traveling by herself to counsel young women who had been abandoned by poverty, violence and fear. (Credit: Cox family)
Minda visited Honduras in 2013, traveling by herself to counsel young women who had been abandoned by poverty, violence and fear. (Credit: Cox family)

In December 2007, Ashraya, the children’s home in India that nurtured baby Minda, celebrated its 25th anniversary.

All adoptees and their families were invited to attend.

A few days after Christmas, Minda flew to Bangalore, a state capital in southern India, with her mother and Emily and Jim Frost.

Minda was surrounded by people who looked like her, and by sights, sounds, and smells that felt familiar.

At Ashraya, she met some of the same women who had fed, bathed and played with her, and rocked her to sleep.

“I loved hearing the ayahs tell stories about my shy smiles and curious nature,” Minda wrote, “and about learning my first English word, ‘Hello,’” Minda wrote. “They told me how I screamed at the sight of my new mother until she fed me my favorite jelly candy.”

Minda asked Ashraya staff members if they could help her find her birth parents. Their records weren’t helpful, so the staff invited local newspapers to write about Minda’s search for her family. They did.

The next day, Jan. 5, Minda met her 17-year-old sister, Pavritha, and her uncle. She learned that her parents lived in a remote village several hours away, and they were eager to see her.

The next day was Jan. 6, Epiphany, the traditional Christian feast day which marks the end of the liturgical 12 days of Christmas and celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ.

Minda woke in a hotel in Manipal, the coastal city where her parents, Shankar and Kalavathi Shetty, left her at a hospital nearly 20 years before.

“Easy as it would have been to let me die, they didn’t allow that to happen,” Minda wrote. “Instead, my dad took me to the hospital, left his real name and my mother’s, and the name of the village where we lived. It was an astonishing act of grace. They loved me. They claimed me. And my adoptive mother never let me forget it.”

When she arrived at her parents’ home, Minda was excited and anxious. “I felt sort of like a Christmas package,” Minda wrote. “What if they don’t like me? What if they think I’m ugly?”

She was greeted by her father, who lifted her out of the car, put her in a wheelchair, and wheeled her into their cement house.

“He is charming and cheerful, and I loved him at once,” Minda wrote. “My father has worked hard, from the early days of their marriage, when all they had was a mud hut. He owns a small store at the edge of the village and has built their cement house with its tiled roof… and kept all his daughters in school despite the prejudice against educating village girls.”

Minda’s reunion with her Indian family in 2007. She is seen with her two younger sisters, Chaitra and Pallavi, and her parents, Shankar and Kalvathi Shetty. (Credit: Cox family)
Minda’s reunion with her Indian family in 2007. She is seen with her two younger sisters, Chaitra and Pallavi, and her parents, Shankar and Kalvathi Shetty. (Credit: Cox family)

Inside the house, Minda met her grandmother and both of her younger sisters, Chaitra and Pallavi. She met her mother and sat beside her. They both were crying.

“My mother had been crying ever since she heard that I was coming, afraid that I would be angry with her, or ashamed of their poverty,” Minda wrote. “As my mother tried to beg forgiveness for relinquishing me, I tried to thank her for saving my life.”

The family spent time together the next day before Minda had to fly home. They stay in touch by phone and through social media.

The remarkable reunion brought even greater perspective to Minda’s extraordinary, ordinary life.

“God is my true Father, and my dad is my father, too,” Minda wrote. “I am my Indian mother’s real daughter. And I am also my American mother’s real daughter. I know who I am. And all is well.”

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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