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franciscan - May 2000

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2000

Clowning and Outreach

by Sandra Pollerman

The doors of the church stood open, the banners and posters announced the delights of the Autumn Fair being held within. The aroma from the barbecue drifted into the neighbourhood and the tunes from the barrel organ drew curious passers-by. For those who knew the event, the welcome was certain. For those who did not, the clown made a difference.

Big-booted, baggy-trousered, red-nosed: the clown stood by the gateway, waving and speaking to people who passed on the street. ‘Hi there. Welcome. Come inside!’ The toy dog under his arm was offered for stroking, the balloons in his pocket became poodles and mice, the smile on his face seemed to stay there for hours.
‘What’s going on in there?’, they asked. ‘Come and see,’ he said. Some shook their heads and walked on by. Others answered the smile with a nod, and entered.

The clown reaches out to bring people in. In this traditional rôle of welcomer the clown exercises the freedom to step back and forth across the borders. The clown creates a safe passage for those outside to enter in. While the circus clown may step across the border of the centre ring and enter the stands to tease and tickle, the outreach of the Christian clown has a different focus. The clown carries the message of Christ the Clown who stands at the centre of our faith tradition and calls us all to ‘Come and play in the Kingdom’.

Life-giving, love-making, laughter-bringing: the topsy-turvy clown calls out to come and see. Jesus says ‘Follow me!’ and then leads his followers along the road. With the gift of this love in our midst, we have the model and are offered the courage to risk a tumble for truth and justice. Jesus brings us the promise, we share it with the world: God is with us, bringing healing and wholeness into our midst. The circus clown also works in the centre ring, sometimes alone, sometimes in teams. From a great distance the attention of the audience becomes focussed on a very small detail; what seems to be an accident can draw gasps from the crowd and then erupt into releasing laughter as everything comes right in the end. Christian clowns, too, bring the Word of God alive as they work and play to recall the stories at the heart of our faith. Using these traditional arts with discipline, fidelity to the story received, and great good humour the Way of Jesus and the history of the People of God can reach those who seem to be far away indeed.

It’s good in theory but does it work in practice? Folks who have been doing it say it does . . . so do those who play with them. The language of laughter and tears is universal; connecting with people happens when we use it.

For nearly twenty years, people in the UK have been exploring the use of the arts of the Christian clown through an organisation called the Holy Fools, UK. Begun by a small group of professional clowns, storytellers, dancers, mimes and clergy from different denominations, the work has continued. Individual clowns and local clown ministry teams can be seen doing hospice work, visiting hospitals and prisons, as well as making contributions to parish worship in a variety of ways. The Revd Roly Bains, one of the co-founders, now serves as a clown in his full-time ministry. Another early member works for the Red Cross in Europe and has taken her clown to Sarajevo and Kosovo. From the very beginning, Franciscan brothers and sisters have supported this work and explored the use of the arts themselves.

‘Follow me’ is the invitation from Jesus in our midst who invites us all to come and play in the Kingdom. §

Sandra Pollerman is a storyteller working with spirituality, personal growth and community development.
For information about the Holy Fools UK, contact the National Co-ordinator: Richard James 020 8554 7986;
email: age.concern.waltham.forest 1@ virgin.net


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