National Lutheran News

Send in the clowns!

Sometimes makingmerry is the best way to worship God.

Christ makes life exciting, and the life in Christ is a circus, says a local leader in clown ministry. Clowning’s messages resonate around the Twin Cities metro area and far beyond. In fact, members of the local troop make annual visits to Poland and have scheduled visits to Latvia and Mexico in 2007. They also have invitations to the Ukraine, Australia, the Philippines and Norway as well as other countries.

While the messages and antics of the clowns tickle the funny bones of audiences, they carry deep theological meaning. A current goal of the local clowns is to help establish church clown groups in other countries they visit. The local troop’s claim to fame is that it is the only group that goes to other countries to train locals to carry on the clown ministry.

In the Twin Cities metro area and beyond, the clown troop performs for intergenerational events, conferences, retreats, workshops, mission events and “divine interruptions at worship,” as well as appearances at nursing homes and hospitals, on the healing power of laughter and play. The clown ministry aims to help people visualize the grace of God.

“Clowning requires depth of faith and commitment,” says the Rev. Dr. Dick Hardel. He’s been clowning since 1973. Hardel currently serves as Executive Director of the Youth & Family Institute and previously authored a monthly column in Metro Lutheran news-paper. (The “Positive Par-enting” column is now authored by Hardel’s colleague, Marilyn Sharpe.)

Hardel has studied under famous clowns from Ringling Brothers Circus. A Lutheran pastor for 35 years, Hardel is joined by his wife, Carolyn, who works behind the scenes in the clown ministry.

One of the local group’s most popular presentations is “What is the church?” In many of the former Soviet block eastern European countries, people view the church as being a sacred building. The clowns’ message is that the church is people — brought together under God’s grace. That’s eye-opening to many who lived under Communism, a system that encouraged people to view churches as historical sites but not relevant to people in their daily lives.

Hardel is the founder of Christ Clown College, which teaches the art of clown ministry and is headquartered at Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan.

The local clown troop is called The Life in Christ Circus. It currently has eight active-member clowns and has performed for Lutheran, Baptist, Roman Catholic and Free Church groups. The clowns don’t charge for their presentations but usually receive a donation from event sponsors. For their foreign ventures, the clowns generally pay their own way, though they do look for grants and other support for their extensive and expensive travel.

The annual visits to Poland are particularly interesting. Bishop Anweiler, regional head of the Evangelical Church of Poland in the Bielska Bialo area, was so enthusiastic the first time the group performed there in 2002, he said, “You must come back to Poland. We’ve forgotten how to laugh.” So began the annual visits.

Under the leadership of Sid Teske, who carries the title “boss clown,” the Twin Cities troop is now planning its annual visit to eastern Europe. Teske and his wife, Karen, consider clowning to be the ministry they’re called to in their retirement. Though Karen doesn’t put on a clown face, she is active behind the scenes in production and support. This year the Teskes will lead clown trips to Poland, Latvia and Mexico.

The clowns are currently looking for help in making costumes to take along with them for new clown groups they organize in other countries. Sid Teske remarked that the local group has to purchase material for clown costumes in the U.S. since Eastern Europeans don’t use brightly colored material and couldn’t afford to buy the material if it were available.

Teske said, and Hardel agreed, that what the clowns do “must always be about Jesus and must be sound theologically; we can’t just do anything that comes to mind because we’re in costume and anonymous.” Teske added, “Clowns may stumble and fall, but there are always solutions that bring glory to God.” Hardel said, “The clown represents every [person].”
“Clowns can enliven the faith of older people and enlighten young people …” the two clowns said.

Training for the clown group includes a multi-part study curriculum. A new series of classes begins in September. Those who complete the course are awarded the degree of “Clown of Christ.”

Persons interested in the clown ministry — from performing to support team or costume sewing — may contact Boss Clown Sid Teske, at 612/378-0582 or by e-mail at sidteske@aol.com. Dick Har-del can be reached at 952/405-7307 or by e-mail at hardelr@comcast.net.