Prank greets new Lutheran bishop Mocko accepts place for wit in church leaders.

September 06, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

Pink flamingos awaited the new bishop.

As Bishop George Paul Mocko went to his Towson office yesterday for the first time as the leader of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pink flamingos lined the sidewalk in his honor.

The display had been placed by a friend who had been the victim of a previous Mocko prank. The friend, an avid gardener, had awakened each day for a month to find plastic pink flamingos perched amid his beloved flora.

Eventually he discovered the source of the flamingo infestation: Mocko.

"I think a religious leader can have a sense of humor. Certainly God has a sense of humor. After all, he created the duck-billed platypus," says Mocko, who couldn't be blamed for having birds on the brain yesterday. It seems his friend had even put paper pink flamingos in the drawers of the bishop's new desk.

Mocko, 57, assumed the duties of his office last Sunday, but he will be officially installed as the bishop of the local synod during a service tomorrow at 1 p.m. at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland.

As successor to retiring Bishop Morris Zumbrun, Mocko is the second head of the synod since the formation of the ELCA in 1988. He can be re-elected every four years, until he is 72 or older.

The ELCA, the fifth-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, has 5.2 million members. About 99,000 of them are in the Delaware-Maryland Synod. The national church was created by a merger of the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.

A prankster, a tinkerer with cars, a homilist who wryly gives 30-word titles to his sermons, Mocko bucks the stereotype of the stern minister.

The Little Falls, N.Y., native grew up as the first son in a staunchly religious Czech-American family that encouraged its first sons to become Lutheran ministers.

Recently, Mocko explored his familial roots on a visit to some first cousins in Czechoslovakia. His repeated applications for a travel visa had been denied by the Communist government because he was a clergyman. But with the collapse of the Communist leadership, Mocko was at last free to make the trip.

"I was deeply impressed by their religious faith," Mocko says of the Czech people. "That faith was what helped them survive Nazism and communism for years. I feel I have that same kind of faith in me, and I've had to rely on it when I had surgery for lung cancer and colon cancer within four years. In my depths, I saw the reality of God. . . ."

Before his election as bishop last June, Mocko had served as pastor of Ascension Evangelical Lutheran Church in Towson, just across York Road from the synod office. He previously was a pastor for 16 years in Wilmington, Del., where he helped lead boycotts and demonstrations that won access to public accommodations and housing for Wilmington's blacks in the early and mid-1960s.

"The passing of those accommodations laws was relatively easy compared to tackling the problems facing African-Americans today," says Mocko. "How do you mobilize a society to solve these festering problems of drug addiction and poverty? What the churches can do is continue to support city churches and their communities through financial contributions. But the local, state and federal governments also have to get involved and spend some money on programs."

Asked if throwing money at a problem is the way to solve it, Mocko answers, "You can't solve it without money."

The bishop returned Wednesday from Orlando, Fla., where he had attended the biennial ELCA assembly. The gathering made headlines when the delegates voted overwhelmingly to stand against abortion, advising it only as "an option of last resort."

Mocko says he is "very proud of my church" for its action during the assembly, especially for coming out strongly against the death penalty.

Another source of pride for the bishop is the scheduled setting of his installation service, the cavernous Roman Catholic cathedral on North Charles Street. To Mocko, the setting, as well as the expected presence of Baltimore Archbishop William Keeler, underscores the "convergence" of various Christian faiths as the millennium draws to a close.

"For a thousand years after Christ's death, we had a united Christian church," Mocko says. "Then for the next thousand years, we've had division. Now, as we're about to enter the year 2000, I feel we're preparing for another thousand years of unity, of ecumenism. It's nice to be involved in this last part of that preparation."

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