San Francisco — For one phantasmic instant a subway station is transformed into a three-ring circus. A teen-age Ronald McDonald look-alike lofts glorious soap bubbles to the tune of a hurdy-gurdy. The old man in a pink Pierrot costume and a lapel button ("Life is Fragile. Handle with Prayer") bestows upon a little boy an elephant sculpted from balloons. A freckle-faced schoolgirl with a rainbow-colored yarn wig flutters a "Holy Fools Rush In" banner, and lands a big kiss on the subway conductor.
The spirit is contagious. Someone plants a bulbous red plastic nose on a television cameraman. Another clown with sad eyes and a borrowed straw hat spots a reporter, scrawls across his forehead in blue grease paint "PRESS," draws an arrow down to the tip of his nose, and then giggles.
The parade marches on, led by colossal puppets and a bagpipe corps through San Francisco's Financial District up the hill to Grace Cathedral, where the bishop blesses this kaleidoscopic congregation of clowns.
These jesters are part of no political rally, nor are they a graduating class from the Ringling Bros. clown college. They are the opening procession of the third annual National Clown, Mime/Puppetry, and Dance Ministry Workshops, which attracted some 400 performing artists and members of the clergy to the campus of the University of California in Berkeley. Observers say membership decline in churches throughout the nation, coupled with shrinking support for the arts from government and foundations, has prompted an extraordinary rebirth of the reunion of worship and the performing arts (a la "Godspell") which dates back to the Middle Ages.
Today there are an estimated 5,000 clown groups, 3,000 puppetry organizations , and at least 1,000 dance groups affiliated with churches in the United States. "It feels like a sector of the United Methodist Church's Office of Communication Education in Nashville. "It's all part of trying to communicate the religious message in the 1980s, and we're going back to ancient forms to do it."
Mr. Nankervis's group was one of the principal sponsors of a week-long conference here offering a smorgasbord curriculum which included "Mime and Sacrament," "Dancing through the Bible," "Basic Ventriloquism," "Finding Faith Inside Fantasy," "Puppetry and the Prophetic," "Beginning Three-Ball Juggling," and "Organizing a Local Church Clown Ministry." More often than not Mr. Nankervis could be found in blue jeans and track shoes, shuttling between Berkeley's First Congregational Church and a tiny dormitory room Spartanly furnished with a cot, electric typewriter, mimeograph machine, and reams of paper. He was invariably clutching a stack of newsletters in one hand; a walkie-talkie seemed to be cemented to his other hand. With it he directed clown traffic and answered queries coming into the main office; "Give my meal ticket away and I'll have a quarter-pounder with cheese," he would say. Or "Tell Susan there is a fire-eating workshop tomorrow morning."
Clerical proponents of Christian clowning like Nankervis say it is not just a flashy gimmick to draw a crowd on Sundays but a church practice well grounded historically and theologically. They take their cue from Paul's injunction to the Corinthians: Become "fools for Christ's sake" because God "made foolish the wisdom of this world."
In the late 1960s the Rev. Floyd Shaffer, an American Lutheran pastor from the Detroit area, became one of the first clergymen to perform a Sunday service in white face and clown costume. Since then, hundreds have followed in his suit of many colors. "It makes people listen with their eyes, which is great because we have talked religion to death for hundreds of years," says Mr. Shaffer who, in his dark trousers and navy windbreaker, has the subdued look of a high school baseball coach. Only the clown on his wristwatch hints at his life's passion.
"In the Middle Ages there were little doors in the front of the church and a clown would pop out in the middle of the service," he says. "If people weren't singing their praises with enough joy, the clown would remind them. Clowns were a real part of church life, but they became social critics and began to mock the bishops and the church institution. Like most institutions, the church didn't handle the criticism and kicked them out."
In the last decade Mr. Shaffer has conducted full clown services -- preaching the Word without saying a word -- for 42 denominations, from full Roman Catholic masses to fundamentalist services. His clown ministry has taken him from grand urban cathedrals to migrant farm workers' camps in south Florida. He founded a worldwide organization called Faith and Fantassy and has become one of the leaders in the Christian clown movement.
"Jesus was always doing or saying something that seemed foolish in the eyes of the world," the Rev. Mr. Shaffer said. "He said, 'Love your enemies,' which doesn't make sense in a world where the United States spends more on arms than anything else. He said that unless you become as little children you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. He wasn't talking about becoming childish. He was talking about childlikeness, About a child's imagination, risk-taking, awe and wonder, trust, and lack of guilt."
Several years ago Lynn Raarup, a music student from St. Cloud, Minn., saw a film on the Rev. Mr. Shaffer and consequently began clowning with the local Lutheran Campus Ministry, which at the time was dancing Bible stories to ragtime. "Jesus taught in parables," she says. "When the people would ask, 'What does this mean?' he would give them another parable. You don't have to give easy answers, but should always leave the congregation with something to think about."
As she spoke, a red van pulled up in front of the First Congregational Church. As if miming that time-honored circus gag, an endless trickle of clowns spilled onto the sidewalk. A clowning class was returning from an afternoon visit to a local senior citizens' home.
"You must have love in your heart. You have to be more than a showoff clown in a parade," says Barney Spohr, a retired draftsman from Albuquerque, N.M., who claims to have "clowned for Christ" for over 10 years. He wore the classic red nose, an orange wig, and a plastic yellow bonnet with a bee in it. "I visit a lot of elderly people. If it takes a fool to get out the word, let's all be fools. Everybody seems to love a clown. If a stranger came up and put his arms around you and said, 'I want to share with you the praise of the Lord,' you would think he was crazy. But a clown get away with that."
Some members of the clowning clergy like the Rev. Bill Peckham, a Methodist minister from Springfield, Ill., are concerned that clowning might become "An evangelical tool, a cheap come-on." He believes "the danger is that we get so caught up in the performance and technique that we forget the primary attention is to ministry. Slapstick, slam-bang clowning makes people hack off. The mark of a Christian clown is gentleness. He has fun with people but doesn't embarrass anyone. He is more interested in seeing others than in beeing seen," says Mr. Peckham, who uses what he calls a "nonperformance" approach to clowning.
In 1973 he began clowning with his church's youth group, which ministered to the homeless, aged, and the poor. When a reporter asked what he called his troupe, he answered off the cuff, "Call us 'The Holy Fools.'" The name stuck, and today there are churches in 48 states and six countries that have followed his lead and started their own "Holy Folls" groups. His mailing list of these organizations now numbers 3,000 and represents 37 denominations, including two Mennonite groups. Mr. Peckham estimates there are now at least 20,000 Holy Fools who are spreading mirth and the Scriptures around the world.
For the first time in the short history of the annual ministry workshops, dance was added this year to the triumvirate of clowning, mime, and puppetry. The Rev. Doug Adams, one of the workshop organizers, is a professor at the Pacific School of Religion and well known in liturgical dance circles. He has written two books on the subject: "Congregational Dancing in Christian Worship" and "Dancing Christmas Carols."
"Historically, dance was always quite important in church," Mr. Adams says. "The word 'rejoice' and 'dance' are interchangeable in Luke 6. When Jesus said, 'Rejoice . . . and leap for joy,' he meant dance. Originally, there were no pews in the church and everybody danced. It was a great equalizer. But as church hierarchy inreased, dance diminished."
Mr. Adams's personal odyssey into the world of sacred dance typifies the earnest search of many of today's clergy for a form of worship that integrates the active and contemplative dimensions of their experience. He studied theology at Duke University in North Carolina during the early 1960s and was active in the civil-rights movement, but constantly struggled with how to meld his interest in social change with meditative worship and academic Bible studies.
He says much of the resistance today to reintroducing the performing arts into religious worship comes from the traditionl premium placed on church services that are orderly, harmonious, and, moreover, quiet. "We recognize God in quiet ways but can never find God in revolutions. In the Bible, God does come in the still, small voice, but God also comes in the loud crashing Syrian host invading Israel."
Humor is another sacred taboo, says Mr. Adams. "People says laughter in church is sacrilegious. That is not because you are laughing at God but because you are laughing at theirm gods. Humor is used to lay low idolatry, and an idol is anything we take too seriously. What you can't laugh at is probably your idol, whether it's the flag or money or a private home. They have become your gods."
"Uncle Frank" Jenkins has worked professionally as a clown for 36 years and came to Berkeley to offer workshops on makeup and balloon sculpture. "Children, " he says, "remember a Bible story when it comes from a clown or puppet better than from a stern Sunday school teacher. There's hardly a church in this country where I haven't worked. I dress up a clown and have a puppet called Junior. He looks just like me and he tells the stories of Jonah and the whale, the parting of the Red Sea, and hiding Moses in the bulrushes When I get to that story Junior always asks the kids, 'Now what kind of a bull rushes?'"
One thing a Christian clown is not, the Rev. Mr. Adams says, is a magician. "The magician does tricks and people say, 'Look how great he is.' The congregation feels stupid and powerless. The clown, on the other hand, bumbles and empowers the audience because they recognize their own possibilities. People facing problems too often say, 'Let's go to the magician.' They say, 'If only we had a bigger home, more money, a better physique.' Advertising caters to these idols. Jesus never played the magician."
The Rev. Peckham, who has earned a reputation for himself in his hometown as the "Shepherd of the Street," is still amazed by the unusual success and effectiveness of Christian clowning. "By being vulnerable a clown can get close. The clown becomes a human halfway house and there's real healing involved. The happiest sound I've ever heard is old people giggling in a nursing home.
"What's so amazing is that it was just yesterday I thought I would be hung in heresy for putting on a clown outfit in church," he recalls. "It boggles the mind to think that eight years later I would be standing in front of several hundred clowns in Grace Cathedral and putting a red nose on the Episcopal bishop of San Francisco in all his ecclesiastical finery. 'What hath God wrought!'"