There has been a lot in the news in the U.S. lately about people dressed up as clowns and engaging in threatening, annoying, and sometimes criminal behavior. In my own city someone was going around in a clown outfit brandishing a large knife, while in nearby suburbs some clowns have committed armed robberies. Clowns are viewed by many as menacing and creepy.
But clowns have often been viewed as innocent in a way that can evoke humor, pity, and compassion. Charlie Chaplain and Emmett Kelley, Jr. portrayed such lovable clowns. Jim McGinnis was a friend of mine who enjoyed becoming Francis the Clown. Jim was the founder and director of Parenting for Peace and Justice, an organization for which I served on the board in the 1990s. When Jim visited our home he signed the guestbook “Francis, the Clown.” In that character Jim would mime skits on peace themes reflecting the values of Francis of Assisi.
During the later years of the Cold War many U.S. and Soviet citizens engaged in people-to-people diplomacy, visiting the country in our own nuclear crosshairs and giving a face to the enemy. I participated in such a trip with the Baptist Peace Fellowship in 1988 (an amazing time to be in the Soviet Union!). We crossed into the Soviet Union with a U.S. collegiate All-Star basketball team that played exhibition games against Soviet teams. Sharon and I helped host a Russian choir that toured the U.S.
Jim went on such a tour in the 1980s. He took along his clown outfit, unsure if he would have the opportunity to use it. One day he woke up not feeling well. He urged his tour mates to go on without him while he rested. Later in the day he felt much better, so he ventured out into a local park as Francis. He engaged children in many delightful skits and non-competitive games. An older man sat on a nearby park bench watching.
After Jim finished playing with the children, the man approached him. He was a clown from one of the main Russian circuses which was in that city for some shows. The man invited Jim to go with him backstage at the circus. Jim met all the other clowns, and they talked about peace. Together they devised a series of peace sketches to perform that night. They invited Jim to stay with them, and that evening Jim performed with the clowns giving a message of peace.
Clowns can be creatures of innocence and vulnerability, opening channels of communication for hope. We can’t let the creepy clowns win. Jim died far too young, but the spirit of Francis the Clown lives on in my memory and the memory of people once considered enemies who were touched by the joy and vision of Francis.