Bill Peckham is a United Methodist minister whose approach to youthful folly has opened a lot of hearts. For information on the Holy Fools, contact PO Box 1828, Springfield, IL 62705, or 217/753-3939. The following article is adapted from material in The Complete Youth Ministries Handbook, Vol. 1.
THE SETTING WAS TYPICAL, almost commonplace. Only the characters were unique. Two men were alone in a sparsely furnished room in a nursing home. Lying on the bed was an elderly man who had lived for decades in the dark, colorless world of the blind. His gnarled hands and furrowed brows gave graphic witness to the hard life he had lived.
Sitting on the edge of the old man’s bed was a clown. His rainbow-colored wig, bulbous red nose, multi-colored pom-poms and brightly painted face seemed strangely out of place in such a sterile, guarded and austere setting.
"Who are you?" the invalid asked.
The clown grasped the blind man’s hands. "I’m a clown," he replied, "and I’m here with a group of other clowns from the church. We came to wish you a happy day and, hopefully, to make your day a little brighter."
"I haven’t had a bright day since I went blind as a young boy," the old man said, "but I’m glad you’ve come. I always wanted to see a clown, and now I guess I have my chance. Will you let me see you?"
For the next few minutes the old man looked at his first clown as only a blind person can. His gnarled old fingers lightly touched his funny-faced visitor literally from head to toe. After he had explored the kinky wig, rubber nose, frills and even the over-sized shoes, the old man smiled at his new friend.
"Thank you," he whispered, "you’ve made this a very special day for me."
The elderly blind man never saw the tears that were bubbling from the eyes of his unusual visitor. I know all this, because I was that clown.
But I’m getting ahead of my story.
It all started as a lark. Just a fun-type publicity stunt for a small-town homecoming celebration.
Someone asked me to be a clown for a day. Most of my church people knew that I was always ready to try something new, so few of them were surprised to see their pastor in a clown face.
I bought some bright-red lipstick, a tube of women’s white makeup, and a little charcoal. Some old baggy pants, a wild T-shirt, a pair of worn-out shoes and a long-forgotten Christmas tie completed the costume.
I was not prepared for the new religious experience that was about to happen to me. After all, who could anticipate that donning an amateur clown outfit could transform a person’s entire understanding of God and life!
But it happened! The magic of greasepaint was destined to turn around much of what I had always understood to be central to my faith and life-style. I had painted myself as a clown, but I discovered in a totally unexpected way the meaning of being a fool for Christ’s sake. The Rev. William J. Peckham had taken the irretrievable step of becoming Joey, a Christian clown.
Walking down the streets of Elkhart, Illinois, that first day, I was sure I looked foolish – maybe even a little stupid. Then I met a group of kids. You would have thought I was Santa Claus or someone special like that. They were all giggles and laughter. But, I reasoned, kids always like clowns so I shouldn’t be too impressed. About twenty feet on down the street I met one of the older members of my congregation who had been ill and quite depressed. Unexpectedly, she lit up with a grin that could light a whole Christmas tree! That smile was worth a million dollars to me that day.
I knew then that I was hooked. I was still a minister, but in my heart and mind I knew that I had also become a clown.
After just a few weeks some of my youth fellowship kids began to ask if they could be clowns also. "You’re having too much fun," they said. "Let us have a piece of the action."
One night at a youth meeting we had a long discussion about clowning. What had happened to me? Why had people reacted to me so differently when I was in a clown face? Wasn’t it all just a game? What possible connection could clowning have with the life of the church?
Well, before that night was over we had agreed to try an experiment. We would all make some clown costumes. We would try to get some advice on how to put on a good clown face. And I was asked to check with the area hospitals or nursing homes about an invitation for our group of clowns to pay a visit.
Within a month we had a dozen teenage clowns dressed up in a variety of stripes and polka dots and bells. We weren’t very skilled at smearing greasepaint on our faces, but that didn’t seem to matter. After only one visit to a hospital ward my young people were as hooked on clowning as I was.
We decided that we would spend one Saturday afternoon each month clowning in some hospital or nursing home. Our biggest problem was too much success! Every institution in the area began to invite us to come for a visit. Rather than once a month, we soon found ourselves committed to weekly visits.
News of our clowning spread, and soon others wanted to join in the fun. Within four years there were over 1200 Holy Fools groups of young people and adults representing 25 denominations throughout the U.S. and overseas.
What was the secret to this popularity and success? There are several obvious reasons:
- The Holy Fools provided an opportunity for people to serve others in an immediate and obviously appreciated way. Nearly every person who is visited by the clowns is openly enthusiastic about the visit.
- It is a relatively easy program to organize. All that is required is a costume, a supply of make-up, a group of interested young people, a basic orientation session, and an invitation from some institution.
- It’s just plain fun.
Our philosophy of The Holy Fools was quite simple:
The clowns operated on a person-to-person basis. We did not preach. We did not pamphleteer. We did not witness in the usual verbal sense. Our central task was to bring a little laughter, a few smiles, and a genuine sense of love and concern for each person we met.
One day we were visiting a home for the aged in Lincoln, Illinois. We encountered an 80-year-old woman who was in a severe depression. She refused to eat and wouldn’t talk to anyone. She just sat in a corner of her room and sulked.
One of our thirteen-year-old girl clowns went bouncing into her room. In less than 10 minutes we heard the lady giggling and talking up a storm. She was showing the clown pictures of all her grandchildren and bragging about each one. That teenage clown had provided a unique medicine for that woman which she could never get from a bottle.
Surely the happiest sound in the world is the sound of giggles and laughter in the halls of a nursing home!
by Cathy Gibbons
I HAVE DONE SOME WORK with children who are very ill. In one instance, I was called to a child’s home; the doctors had diagnosed about 24 hours left for the child. The family had been planning to take him to Disneyland in a week or two. In I went as Sweetheart, cushioned with a postcard of Mickey Mouse, Sunshine (my clown puppet), a magic prop (a bouquet that doesn’t bloom flowers until you want them to), and some balloons. He was drifting in and out of consciousness, but I knew he knew I was there when I mentioned Mickey and he asked for Goofy. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do; it turned into a long monologue that became a guided meditation. He helped the flowers bloom by holding the "magic words" (I love you) in his heart – he opened his eyes just as the flowers peeped out of the leaves. My real function was with the family; Sunshine helped me to do some light comedy about my big shoes, they laughed, broke the tension; and it was safe for them to cry when I hugged them. The mother and daughter rested in my arms for a long time. I don’t understand all this; the experiences have happened spontaneously. I do know that I’ve learned a lot about loving.
For more on Cathy Gibbons’ work, please see the Resources section under Fun Technicians, Inc.