Author: Christopher Cocca

Christopher Cocca is a Pennsylvania-based writer and community organizer. His fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Brevity, elimae, Pindeldyboz, Geez Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, Generate, and elsewhere. He earned a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School in 2005 and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing (fiction) from The New School in 2011. He helps lead the Air Quality Partnership of Lehigh Valley - Berks and is the Associate for Urban Mission at FPC Allentown. Opinions expressed on-line are solely his. Quotation does not equal endorsement, except for when it does.

Thinking About Chicago

It’s possible to encounter O’Connnor’s stories (you never really just read them) without explicitly discerning her deep, abiding belief in literary art as Christian vocation or her mission to show, as she said, “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” Clear as day about these motives in her essays and letters, she’s almost never so obvious in her fiction. Perhaps because she uses the evangelical cosmologies of her neighbors as Tolkienesque proxies for her own traditional Catholic systems it’s easy to infer a sort of distance between O’Connor’s art and faith where she in fact saw none. In the same way, it’s possible to listen to Stevens’ biggest hit, “Chicago,” without immediately sensing the plaintive Christian hymn at its core, but “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “Oh God Where Are You Now?,” “The Lord God Bird,” “To Be Alone With You,””God’ll Ne’er Let You Down”… well, these and others comprise a body of work that, like O’Connor’s, raises and answers questions about what makes art “Christian.” Like O’Connor, Stevens operates outside of expectation: his confessional work is among his best, but you’d never call him a Christian artist the way, say, Amy Grant is a Christian artist.

Today is Casimir Pulaski Day; Because of Sufjan and Slavery, I Offer This

It’s mostly an Illinois thing, but there’s also an important Lehigh Valley connection.  I wrote about this a few years ago, but because I love Sufjan Stevens and hate injustice, I’ll tell you about it again:

Pulaski was a Polish noble and general who helped the American colonies win their independence from Great Britain by training and leading American soldiers throughout the Revolution.  Pulaski died from wounds sustained during the Siege of Savannah, and is remembered today as a proto-typical Polish-American hero in many Polish-American communities.  Though his holiday is mostly celebrated in Illinois, two years ago I discovered a connection between the Duke and the Lehigh Valley’s very own Bethlehem, PA.

I was walking around the grounds of the old Moravian settlements in Bethlehem and come upon this grave in the historic Moravian Cemetery:

A few yards away, I found this historical marker, explaining Duke Pulaski’s role in defending the early settlement and the fact that women from the Moravian community created the war banner he carried into Savannah, an even later llionized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Hymn of the Moravian Nuns of Bethlehem at the Consecration of Pulaski’s Banner.

Reconciling the image of pacifist Moravians sewing banners meant for war is one thing.  But Cornelia’s grave made me hot with rage and then it made me weep.

When I got home, I wrote the piece below.  You need to know that Bethlehem, PA, was founded by pacifist Moravians (who were fleeing religious persecution) in 1741 and christened for its namesake on Christmas Eve.

CORNELIA
NEW YORK
1728-1757
MULATTO SLAVE
(THE HORSFIELD’S)
1755 RECEIVED INTO THE CHURCH

What scandal, these Moravians, these Peace Church nuns and friars rending martial banners? Duke Pulaski, their protector, marches to Savannah, is recalled in Illinois among the Polish and in the frontier psalter for his sword. How ancient, their Count’s mission, in its context on the Lehigh, infant, pre-incarnate by their Christmas City’s namesake — Bethlehem, Palestine?

Cornelia, theirs in life, (the Horsfields’), not her own or God’s, sewn in Pennsylvania with the city’s founding mythos. December 24, 17whatever. Theirs in death, the Horsfields, these Peace Church nuns and friars.

The Gospel of Mark as Sudden Fiction

Sudden fiction is another term for flash fiction, but the two aren’t simply synonymous, at least not to my ear.  Don’t read too much into the title of this post.  I’m not making some argument that the Gospel of Mark ought to be thought of as fiction or non-fiction by modern definitions.  I’m talking about effect.   Where does the writer mean to take us, and why?  How do we know?

The Gospel of Mark is short, but it’s also very sudden.  Replete with “immediatelys,” the narrative is constantly moving.  Like a good short story, it feels meant to be read in one sitting.

I’ve just finished a sudden read in this manner.  My sudden thoughts follow.

In Mark, Jesus is concerned with telling anyone who will hear that the kingdom of God is at hand, the kingdom of God is here, and that this news is good.

Often, his message gains traction through healing and exorcisms (these may or may not be the same).   He is clearly opposed to entrenched religious systems and values, but not to the teachings of Israel’s prophets.  His je ne sais quoi  has precisely to do with his vision of God and God’s kingdom in the context of Rome’s empire, Herod’s puppet vassal, the Sanhedrin’s religious hegemony, the temple-merchants’ guild and the common-place fiefdom of first-century mores, beliefs, and expectations often beguiling his disciples or other parts of the general public.  Often, those outside his immediate circle understand him best.  He is arrested, tried, and crucified quickly.  He even dies quickly.  His tomb is found empty, and his followers are instructed by a heavenly presence to meet him, the Risen, in Galilee.  No big deal.  Biggest deal ever.

We shouldn’t be surprised.

’99 Problems: Jimmy Fallon Lost Me at Bitch

A few nights ago, Chris Rock’s “Bigger and Blacker” special was on.  Because I remember it being from 1999 and also hilarious, I watched it for a while.  A few things stuck out this time around.

  • Because it was made in 1999, it looks like it could have been made yesterday (Rock’s update on the Raw-era Eddie Murphy leather suit notwithstanding).
  • A lot of the jokes themselves still stand up.   Most of the ones that don’t have to do with gender roles and outdated (and even then, largely feigned) attitudes toward women.

The next day, I saw the clip of Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake bringing their History of Rap bit to The Tonight Show.  Near the end of the medley, we’re treated to “Move, bitch! Get out the way!” and “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” in rapid succession.

Watching two wealthy, talented, powerful men grunt bitch the way they did was, quite frankly, shocking.  In both cases, bitch is meant as a pronoun, a somehow acceptable substitute for woman.  “Demeaning” doesn’t begin to capture it, and, while they should be embarrassed by it, embarrassing isn’t a strong enough word.  It was lyrical misogyny and it was shameful.  Because we all love you, Jimmy Fallon, we may be inclined to give you a pass.  Poor judgement happens.  But this felt like watching little boys learning how to marginalize and mistreat other people.   It looked like grown men who should know better legitimizing their part of a culture that treats women like objects worthy of derision, possession, and shame.   Aren’t we past all of this?

IronPigs-Liberty-Bell-2014

Not Just Bacon: The IronPigs, the Liberty Bell, and Allentown’s Revolution Legacy

The new bacon hats are getting all of the attention (and a lot of it) in the regional and even national press.  But for me, the most interesting new look in the ‘Pigs’ line up this year is the powder-blue/burgundy combo complete with a new alternate logo wedding the Liberty Bell to the local steel industry.   From the IronPigs:

“The IronPigs will don a new powder blue and burgundy two-tone Sunday cap this season that connects the rich histories of the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia regions with a fresh-take on the world-famous Liberty Bell. In this new design, the Bell is suspended by an I-beam, a symbol of the Lehigh Valley’s steelmaking prowess, and features metal rivets to indicate the Bell’s iconic crack. Lehigh Valley residents may also be familiar with the fact that in 1777, the Liberty Bell was hidden in Allentown so that the British army wouldn’t melt it down for munitions. The cap will be worn with the retro mesh IronPigs jersey which was introduced in 2013 to pay homage to the Phillies’ tradition-rich teams of the 1970s and 1980s in which the Phillies went to the postseason in six of eight seasons and won their first World Championship in 1980. “

Frankly, you had me (and always will) at powder blue and burgundy.  But there’s something even more interesting and historically important here, which the front office mentions but I’d like to expand on.   As many locals know, Allentown, then known as Northampton Town, did indeed hide the Liberty Bell (then known as the State House Bell) from the British during the American Revolution.  Specifically, the bell and ten other Philadelphia bells were hidden under the floor boards of Zion’s German Reformed Church (now known as Zion’s Reformed United Church of Christ).   Also rendered Zion’s Liberty Bell Church, the site at Church and Hamilton (between 7th and 6th) has housed Allentown’s Liberty Bell Shrine and Museum since 1962.

From Zion’s website (libertybellchurch.org):

“Zion is known as the Liberty Bell Church because in 1777, eleven bells were brought here from Philadelphia for safe‑keeping during the Revolutionary War. Those bells included the State House bell B, now better known as the Liberty Bell. They were hidden under the floor boards on this very site so that the British would not find and melt them to make cannons.

Our Liberty Bell Museum on the lower level of the building commemorates this and other historic events at the church, and houses the Harry S. Trexler Portraits of Freedom collection as well as changing exhibits. Because of its historical importance, Zion is on the National Register of Historic Places.”

As the tour guides at Zion’s will tell you, the Liberty Bell did not become “The Liberty Bell” for another 80 years after the colonies were liberated from Great Britain.  Seizing upon the message emblazoned across the bell (Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof),  abolitionists in the 19th century made it a symbol in the fight to end slavery and a reminder of the degree to which we’d failed as a body politic to proclaim the ideals of the revolution in their fullest, truest sense.

It’s not often that the cities respectively hosting a big league club and their top affiliate have this kind of connection in terms of history, iconography, and branding.  I’ll be sporting the new hat (reserved by the ‘Pigs, of course, for Sundays) in proud support of my city and the role it played in preserving one of liberty’s greatest symbols.

Bullets With Butterfly Wings: A Writing Prompt About Nerves, Dread, and Fear

Write about your strongest memory of heart-pounding belly-twisting nervousness: what caused the adrenaline? Was it justified? How did you respond?

The prompt (not the awesome title reference) came today from WordPress.  Butterflies like bullets.  You know what that’s about.  That song came out in 1995, which is probably exactly when my own strongest moment of heart-pounding, belly-twiting nervousness happened.  To make another reference, it was almost certainly about a girl.

And now I need to watch this, and so do you:

A few years ago I was on an obsessive workout regimen and dropped a million pounds.  Nirvana Unplugged was my cardio jam.  I wonder what that was about.

How Letterman Keeps Winning

Jay Leno may have delivered more viewers in the long run, but Letterman’s move to CBS 21 years ago created the late night ethos dominating NBC and cable even now.

Notes David Bauder:

“Like most comics of his generation, Meyers worships at the altar of David Letterman, but a more enduring influence is Conan O’Brien.” There’s no Meyers (or Conan, Fallon, Colebert, Stewart, or Ferguson) without David Letterman.

Those Unknown Search Terms on Your WordPress Dashboard

Vintage_mail_bag_at_the_Postal_MuseumThe Search Term Mail Bag is one of my favorite kinds of posts.  It’s that part of the show where we pretend your search terms are sent by you to me ala David Letterman’s CBS Mail Bag or Craig Ferguson’s email segment.  They’re collected here, but they’re getting harder and harder to do.

As Google encrypts more searches in an effort to satisfy consumer privacy demands, bloggers are seeing fewer real search terms come through in our metrics.  There are some, of course, mixed in with the growing chorus of unknown terms.  WordPress says weighs in here.

We all understand why Google and other engines are doing this, but there was something charming about seeing every term and gauging all the reasons people found your koans and haiku about Axl Rose and Plato.  We can still use metrics about tags and posts to piece these things together, but that creates the kind of vacuum space and writers always seek to fill.

Ukrainian Orthodox Church no longer praying for the government; Tetyana Derkatch calls for Yanukovych’s excommunication

In an unprecedented move, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church leadership says prayers for the current government will no longer be included in the liturgy.

Instead the denomination’s ruling body, known as the Holy Synod, advised believers to ask God to protect Ukraine and its people, and to pray [for] the many victims.

More here.

And from Euromaidan in English – Site of the Official English-language Public Relations Secretariat for the Headquarters of the National Resistance in Kyiv, Ukraine, this:

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate on February 20 issued a decision to stop the remembrance of those in power during worships.

“Taking into account that the repeated calls of the Church not to use weapons against people, who elected them to serve people and Ukraine, but not for violence and murder were not heard by the State authorities, it was decided not to mention those in power during services” starting from February 20, 2014 said the statement.

In addition, the clericals appealed to the authorities to stop using weapons against the people immediately. Now the church, in spite of the Scripture and the Constitution of Ukraine, which imply the necessity to pray for those in power, will pray for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people .

The church also appeal to pray for the dead and wounded in clashes in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, also this:

Tetyana Derkatch, the religious publicist, initiates public petition to Metropolitan Volodymyr and the Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) for the purpose of excommunication and anathematizing Viktor Yanukovych. She has announced the action on her Facebook page, http://risu.org.ua reports.

“The idea of ​​excommunicating authorities and anathematizing them for their crimes, incompatible with even the slightest requirements for a Christian, is not new. This should be done when an especially high-ranking member of the Church sets a bad example for society by his or her inadequate response, which spells corruption for the whole society,” – Tetyana Derkatch explains.

The publicist advises everyone who agrees with this initiative to put a cross under her post.

“It is better to cut off the seducing hand than to lose the whole body,” – she notes.

Tetyana admits that it was not uncommon in the past for the Church to punish highly-placed parishioners.

“Somewhat similar events happened to the emperor Theodosius and Ambrose, bishop of Milan. It seems even more reasonable in circumstances where the leadership is no longer considered to be a sacred gift from the Lord. The President of Ukraine is not the Byzantine emperor. He is a parishioner of the particular Church. He does not only take the desired benefits of power, rather he also takes responsibility for its spiritual condition.”

“For example, an excommunicated person is no longer welcome to visit Mount Athos to pray for forgiveness,” – Tetyana states.

On her opinion, excommunicating Yanukovych will suspend the conflict between the people and the government.

“If the Church wants to contribute to the settlement of institutional conflict in Ukraine caused entirely by its parishioners, it must use all available means to influence them, and not only appeal to someone unnamed for peace and nonviolence. Otherwise it must not be surprised, if its voice is never heard,” the religious publicist summarizes.

Living Here In Allentown and on Reverse Frontiers

At about 118,000 people, Allentown is the third-largest and fastest-growing city in Pennsylvania.  After long and short falls from its place as a national commercial and industrial leader, Allentown is again a city in transition, with a downtown redevelopment project (heavily subsidized, of course) poised to renew the economic vitality of the urban core.

Allentown is a mid-sized city, and here’s what that means to me:  big enough to be burdened with great responsibilities and blessed with great potential, but small enough that people — and partnerships — can make real differences.  Small enough, then, for me to take the success of my city personally.  Developers may be footing parts of the bill, but at 80 public cents spent for every private dollar, so am I.   So are the working poor, and I continue to demand real opportunities for everyone affected to have a voice in all this change.   Allentown’s size also means there are real opportunities for territorialism, silo-building, Richard-Coreyism, and real opportunities to have a personal stake in the subversion of those things.   Those former things are bad for my city, and I can be given to take that personally. It’s no coincidence that my spiritual tradition holds out a vision for a kind of city where those former things have passed away.

The opportunities in Allentown mean specific things for young Gen Xers and Millennials.

Creative class: we need you.

Come here.  Move here.  Create here.  Advocate here.  A hundred more of you could be the tipping point that creates thriving art and green scenes that you’ll build with the people here who are working hard at connecting around those kinds of issues now.  If developers and politicians assert with their branding and their braggadocio that Allentown is up for grabs, I’ll assert it with them.  And if it’s up for grabs for them, it’s up for grabs for us.  We need you to help us chart the course of Allentown’s civic identity in the 21st Century.  Help us see our iconography anew.  Help us celebrate our history by building a future together.  Join the good work being done here and stake your own claim on this reverse-frontier.

Someone found my blog today by searching the term “Generation X is broken.”  We’re not, and neither is this place.  We are poised to make a difference, to create and lead the change.  Come back from the hinterland and be part of something real.

For reference, Allentown is bigger than fellow mid-sized cities like Springfield, Illinois; Athens, Georgia; Lansing, Michigan; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Berkley, California; and Burbank, California.  Like most of these cities, Allentown is part of a larger metropolitan area.  And we’re uniquely positioned within reasonable distances from Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and DC. We have unique colonial, consumer and creative heritage, an institutional art scene and an emerging network of eager independents.

See you soon.

Solidarity, Serendipity, Grace: a brief story from my morning

Yesterday I reposted a three-year old piece about Hess’s, the famed and sorely missed downtown commercial icon that owned the 20th century not just here in Allentown but really across this part of Pennsylvania.

As you know if you live here, Allentown is undergoing half-a-billion dollars in new capital investment (highly subsidized, of course).

This morning, I had a breakfast get together downtown. I was early, and I found myself sitting in the lobby of the Butz building, about 830, silently praying. At some point, a kind woman I’d never met before who works somewhere in the building asked me if I wanted anything to eat or if I could use some coffee. Yesterday, I gave a little extra at a local coffee shop and said if you don’t want the tip, please do pass it on to a homeless friend in need. #solidarity #serendipity #grace.

The kind woman from this morning may have thought I was homeless or just simply hurting, and maybe that’s on her mind because of all the awareness being raised about the needs in Allentown. Maybe looking out for others is part of who she is.  In any case, I’m  grateful there are people out there wanting to help each other.  I’m grateful for her kindness and her courage, and I know that someday soon it will encounter someone with needs I can’t begin to imagine, and I bet it has already.

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