Clowns for Christ, Clowns for Life

A Wartburg College Ministry Story For #UKnight Day

For my Wartburg Friends

I sit at the mirror, waiting for things to start. As everyone gathers, I rise. We take hands and pray the Lord’s Prayer. It is the last words any of us will say for the next 90–120 minutes.

It is 1981. I am a member of Wartburg College’s Christian Clown Troupe. We do services at churches around the area once a month or so during the school year.

The morning starts early. We all get up and gather our personal props and costume pieces and meet at D lot (The farthest parking lot for the school.) It usually takes 2 or 3 cars to get all of us and the stuff to the church.

Once everyone gets there and is changed into their costumes, we gather for the morning’s last words. We run through the service, who is doing what, who our contact at the church is, and where the offering is going. Then, we clasp hands around the circle and pray together.

In silence, we sit at the mirror and prep for the service. Sometimes we are lucky and there is a bathroom mirror we can use. Most times, we use the ones we brought with us.

First thing on (for me) is the layer of Vaseline. It helps keep my skin from breaking out. It helps keep the white face from cracking. It helps center me. Next comes the white face. We buy it in pots from a professional make up company. It is the most important make up we use.

Once the white face is on, I stare at the mirror deciding what face to use. This day, mine is colored triangles above the eyes and a bright red, exaggerated mouth. Makeup extras week to week have included circles of red on the cheeks, extra outlining on the triangles, possibly a heart instead of the circles. My clown is the troupe’s child, so everything can look a bit rough — which is good. I have years of practice doing makeup on other people, but my own makeup? That’s a lot harder.

Once the makeup is right, I get “poofed” — someone uses the big poof and lightly dusts my face with powder. It sets the makeup, keeping it from running. Some days, we don’t use the puff — we just blow the powder at each other’s faces directly from the makeup container.

While waiting for the others to be done and service to start, I help poof others. I run around and help get things ready. Our leaders are usually the last two ready. After the prayer, they have gone up and set up our props. Only after that is done do they come back and put on their makeup.

When it is time, we gather and run from the room to the sanctuary. We take a quick breath to steady ourselves and run up the main aisle to start the service. Our job for the next hour or so is to share God’s word with the congregation without saying anything.

The service may not include us speaking, but that doesn’t mean it is quiet. We encourage the congregation to sing, talk, hug, and love each other. We work hard to keep the congregation involved in what we are doing. It leads to a joyous service for all involved!

The service component I love the most is the offering. Today, I have been picked to be the main offering. We pass a laundry basket to the group members, with me last. I remove a pin from my overalls and drop it in the basket. Everyone gives me a stern look. I frown. I have an idea — I carefully put my teddy bear in the basket. Surely my most valued possession will be enough? But it is not. More frowns. More pointing at the basket. I walk away a bit to think and don’t like the idea that comes to me. I look back at the group. I point to myself and shake my head. They frown. I nod. A smile breaks out on my face as I run back to the basket and climb in.

That act of climbing in of giving your whole self. That is the part that sticks with me always. The belief in an all knowing god, I am not a believer in that anymore. I wish I were, but I am not. I know many who do believe. I envy them, but it isn’t me. What is still me? The belief that the best thing you can give is yourself. The full attention, the full presence, to everything I do and everything I am.

The offering plate is passed to the congregation. Someone from the congregation announces that the morning’s collection will go to a mission or a cause. Which one changes week to week, month to month, service to service.

A couple more skits continue. We finish with a joyous nonverbal benediction, then work our way down the aisles as the congregation sings the closing hymn.

At some churches, we stand in the receiving line with the pastor. Shaking hands, giving hugs, smiling at the kids. At other churches, we go directly from the closing hymn back to room we started in. We clowns gather together in a circle, holding hands again. Someone starts the Lord’s Prayer. It was the last words we spoke before the service and it is the first we speak after. When the circle breaks we each grab a piece of tissue and swipe our faces. Once that is done, we can really talk.

I sit at the mirror again, taking off the clown face. As completely as I can, I wipe it away. The cracked white face, the colors I added earlier, every bit of it comes off. My face returns to itself in the mirror in front of me.

I have to take the clown face off, but I often wish I didn’t. Seeing the uncovered faces of the women and men around me remind me that this makeup isn’t just a face I put on — it is a part of myself I have let show for a few minutes. The childlike clown is always a part of me hidden under my adult self. She seems the most innocent and open parts of me. The part that does good, that can give of herself freely. I hold her in my heart and try to give my all to what I do, even after all these years.

Today is a great day to support Wartburg College! Give via my link and help me win a pair of socks! (Unsure how much to give? Try something related to your graduation year!)

This is how I remember things. I know this isn’t how all services went, but it is the bright and shining memory of time spent with great friends. The only thing I regret is that belief in the good and the right is not longer as easy or as possible as it was then. Any errors or mistaken memories recorded here are mine alone.