I recently commented on Richard Swanson’s provokingthegospel (provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/) that “circus took me to seminary.” The response was wanting to know how that happened. Since I have no posted here in a while, I thought it would be a good thing to share!
I grew up in Venice FL when Ringling still claimed it as their winter HQ. My church was literally across the street from their winter arena. When I walked to church, I could smell the elephants and hear the lions and tigers – and sometimes the band. Literally, circus was in the air.
I was introduced to clown ministry while in junior high through my church youth group. Somehow our pastor got a Ringling clown to come teach us as a weekend retreat – I really wish I knew now who that clown was! We had 30 youth that weekend; within a year the clown ministry was down to 4; in another year we still had 4 but I was the only one from the original retreat.
Clowning taught me that I loved to teach, so I entered college studying Christian education.
My first semester of college introduced me to curriculum theory and educational philosophy, specifically through Paulo Freire. I asked why the congregations did not know more about “this stuff” and was told that there was a great absence of discourse around educational thinking in the church and in our culture. I stated (with all the conviction of someone not yet 20) that I was dedicating my life to helping the church explore why teaching is important.
The summer between junior and senior years I traveled with a circus run by a United Methodist pastor: 33 college students for a summer tour. My final year was trying to discern between seminary or starting my own religious clown troupe / circus (the word “edutainment” has not yet been coined, but that was the idea). Since all the coursework for my major was completed, I finished a minor in psychology and did most of the coursework for a minor in theater (I already had a couple of theater courses).
I took a semester off to discern. Being in Florida with lot’s of entertainment, I auditioned at a couple of places. A few churches knew of my clowning and had me do special events for them. I met Steve Smith, then dean of clown college who had me to the circus arena a couple of times as a special guest. Meanwhile a mentoring pastor told me the kinds of questions I was exploring were the kind of questions explored at seminaries, and encouraged me that I could continue to combine religious education and performance while in seminary. I visited three seminaries, and knew I belonged at one of them.
Even as a seminarian, I was trying to explore performance. I was introduced to Floyd Shaffer, and made a pilgrimage to his home about once a semester. I took a year-long internship with another religious circus, turning down over $5000 in scholarships. For a variety of reasons the internship only lasted two weeks. I returned to seminary heart broken but more committed to religious education. I also auditioned for the local renaissance festival. There I found more community than I was experiencing at seminary. That’s when I earnestly began exploring how to use theatrical tools to build faith communities – more than what I do on stage, more than what I with others to prepare to be on stage.
There’s more to the story, but that’s how circus got me to seminary.