Tom Nankervis works in the communications office of the United Methodist Church in Nashville, but at the moment he is sitting under a tree at American University, the sweat of August wetting his brow, a walkie-talkie stuck in his belt. He is pursued by problems: An important box of puppets has been sent to Paris instead of Dulles, and there aren't enough name tags, and the public-address system has to be organized. Tough work for a clown.

In another life Nankervis is Augustus Click, a clown.

He is also a Klown for Christ, one of the groups sponsoring a seven-day "Clown, Mime, Puppet and Dance Ministry Workshop," which has drawn about 650 persons of all ages, shapes, sizes and denominations to Washington this week. Tonight they will all parade from Third Street up the Mall to the Washington Monument from about 7 to 9:30 p.m.

They are ordinary people seeking a slice of the extraordinary; housewives and deacons ministering to cancer patients in funny faces and fright wigs; teen-agers finding a sense of purpose in slapstick entertainments; clergymen and women exploring religion by trading the distancing formality of leadership for a big red plastic nose. They strain for instant intimacy with intense eye contact, and reach out with frequent, startling, insistent hugs.

There are altogether about 1,000 clowns, etc., who have attended workshops in clown ministries this year, quite an increase over the 175 who came to the first meeting in Nashville in 1978. It is one of the few arenas in which fundamentalists and evangelicals coexist happily with their more liberal, mainstream Protestant brothers and sisters, Nankervis says. Some of the clowns are ordained clergymen who occasionally conduct services in clown gear; most of the others are laymen who take their clowning into hospitals, nursing homes and Sunday schools.

"If you watch most people's faces as they go into church they look like they're going to an execution," said Father David Mura to the group Monday morning. "It's BORING. Now if you go to a boring party you have three choices: Go home, stay and be bored, or put some LIFE into it. If you go to a boring mass, you can stay and be bored, go home -- and end up going to Hell" (he gets a laugh on that one), " . . . and it's very boring in Hell . . . or give something of yourself to bring joy to the service."

Mura, whose clown name is Bosco, after St. John Bosco, a 19th-century Italian clown, is wearing a T-Shirt that says "Fools for Christ." "Those of you who have rotten singing voices -- you know why you have rotten singing voices? BECAUSE GOD GAVE THEM TO YOU. He wants you to sing rottenly. You should sing loudly to give it right back to him. And to make the good singers around you sing louder . . ."

He continues, much in the style of a comic warming the crowd. He explains how, to bored, unresponsive people in church, "the word 'amen' is a four-letter word." He talks about people who woodenly take communion, and how he as a priest has looked at so many tongues hanging out that he's noticed how some have serrated edges, some are green with creme de menthe from the night before, etc. Lots of laughs. Someone in the crowd calls out a joking comment. Father Mura turns and gives him a big raspberry.

Bwwwawhhhhh.

Part of the philosophical underpinning of this clown ministry, Nankervis explained later, is the belief that Jesus was a regular guy -- sinless, of course, but "human" -- and that fun should not be antithetical to worship.

"Christ made some masterful uses of humor," he said. "Jesus was not the somber person He is portrayed to be, speaking only with a background of harp music. He was short, dark, and had to have a great sense of humor -- He was invited constantly to banquets. He was a great storyteller and a neat person to be with."

They do not use their artistic skills to try to convert people, he said, and are "appalled" by groups like the Moonies who use street clowns to attract converts.

"Our basic message is love."

Why clowns? According to this group, the clown is an ancient figure in most religions, including Christianity. In the Middle Ages, clowns acted out the liturgy in cathedrals for the illiterate populace. As described in an article by Tim Kehl, the clown, or court jester, or fool, is a symbol of joy and hope (he refuses to accept the limits of the possible), as well as a nonconformist, a vulnerable lover of people, and a servant.

"The clown dares to live out his dreams . . ." wrote Colin Morris in "The Hammer of the Lord." "And such men (and women) are dangerous. They introduce a wild, unpredictable element into an otherwise tidy, soulless, prudential existence. This clown, Jesus, set up his kingdom in a tiny backwater of a great empire and declared a handful of peasants to be the pathfinders of a new humanity . . . He established a fool's paradise, a colony of clowns -- men and women who dared to live out their dreams and pay whatever price was asked of them for the privilege."

In a modern context, the clowns for Christ see the devices and disguises of the clown as a passage to the hidden lives of people they want to reach. They talk a great deal about "reaching the child in all of us" and "sharing" and "play." They do a great deal of audience hugging -- "there's a lot of skin hunger out there," one explained -- a physical closeness that would be embarrassing or improper if it wasn't done by a person in a clown suit.

They know there are people out there who think they are jerks, who don't want to be hugged, and could care less about finding the child within. They don't care.

The people who become clowns have needs too, and only the experience of wearing a clown's makeup can reveal the freedom it provides. In white face and red nose, the plain become beautiful and the beautiful lose the currency of their looks. Lumpy bodies disappear in the voluminous folds of a clown suit, and bald heads or buck teeth or large ears become advantages. There are no races or sexes or ages in clown makeup, only clown, and the self disappears and becomes something else.

"It's like they say," said Marjorie Smith, a 51-year-old divorced mother of seven, manager of a pizza parlor, and clown, from Salineville, Ohio, with a feather stuck into her red beehive hairdo. "You have to act crazy to keep from going crazy."

The teacher, who is wearing a baggy-pants clown outfit and outsized clown shoes, tells the students that when he yells out particular parts of the body, they are to find someone else in the class, match up and converse.

"Left elbow to right ear!" he says.

"Left little finger to right big toe!"

"Bottom to bottom!"

People can be heard introducing themselves, "I'm from Virginia, where are you from?" and so forth, in these peculiar positions.

"Nose to nose!"

Finally the exercise is over. He wishes them to react to it. "Was anyone uncomfortable?" he asks. "What if I'd said 'Nose to bellybutton' . . . ?" There are a few embarrassed giggles.

There are 23 workshops and classes available to the men, women and teen-agers attending this meeting, ranging from juggling and beginning ventriloquism to "Clowning and Sexuality" and clowning techniques to use with the dying.

Many of the people at the workshop are nurses or therapists in nursing homes, tending the chronically ill, the aged, or the dying.

"I get so tired of people talking about their problems," said one woman who works in a nursing home. "When I go in as a clown I can just sort of cheer them up. I can get closer to them."

"I'm a hugging clown," said another middle-aged woman in her discussion group, who works as a hospital volunteer. "Not in real life, but in white face I am."

They talk about people they think need the "clown ministry": a 26-year-old victim of multiple sclerosis, who has no family, whose husband has left her in a nursing home and who believes -- wrongly -- that she will walk again; an 86-year-old woman whose only family, two grandchildren, don't visit her; a 14-year-old with an alcoholic father, an older brother in jail, and a bad record at school.

Bob Kloos, a bearded young priest from Cleveland, wearing shorts, running shoes with no socks, and a T-shirt that says "Keep On Trustin'," talks about a 37-year-old mother of five whose husband suffered a paralyzing stroke at age 29. The woman is the sole caretaker of her wheelchair-ridden husband, and ekes out their Social Security check by baking and decorating cakes 60 hours a week, a schedule that forces her to go without sleep two nights a week.

"You don't have to think about the future with a clown," he says. "You just think about the here and now."

In another class, the students are told to use traditional types of comic plots (burlesque, picaresque, love, etc.) to retell Bible stories. One group comes up with the idea of setting the story of Abraham and Sarah in a nursing home. They are forced to have separate rooms and can only see each other at recreation and television hour. Sarah gets pregnant and the staff is amazed; the childbirth is paid for with Medicare.

"That's great," comments the teacher, Jim Niccolls. "You know Isaac the son of Abraham and Sarah means laughter in Hebrew."

Another plot has Goliath striking down his attackers with a toilet bowl plunger, and another presents Jesus as a stranded passenger in an airport.

In 1956, Floyd Shaffer, at 26, was a "fair-haired boy" of the Lutheran Church, he says, and had built and paid for a $1-million church building. But about 15 years ago he got into clowning, and now he spends half his time as pastor of a church in Detroit and the other half in a clown ministry that takes him to groups as diverse as migrant workers and lawyers, and to teaching workshops in "Finding Faith Through Fantasy" at the clown convention.

Shaffer is a whirlwind, a kinetic bundle spewing words at a dizzying clip.

"I'm a right-side-of-the-brain person," he says. "I think in pictures. That's why I talk so fast. My wife says I can talk more about nonverbal communication than anyone she knows . . ."

He made a plan for his life, and for saving the world, 10 years ago, and he's ahead of schedule.

His workshop Monday was an example of a liturgical service performed by clowns. He was joined by Penny Sewall, a clown from Minneapolis who calls herself Wobniar ("rainbow" spelled backwards), and her tape of modern songs that ranged from the lively (Willie Nelson) to the saccharine (B.J. Thomas singing "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head"). The two, dressed in full clown regalia, made an altar with a table, a cloth, two candles, plastic flowers, and a cross made of two sticks. The invocation was three balloons tied to a stick (The Holy Trinity: three in one). For the confession, Wobniar "found" small pieces of cloth printed with words like "Greed" and "Envy" and stuffed them into a black bag; the "congregation" dropped in small balls of cotton that had been dirtied, symbolizing their sins and troubles.

The sermon was a somewhat inexpert rendition of the story of Noah and the Ark, with members of the congregation corralled into playing animals. Shaffer (clown name: Socato) got seasick on the ark. Communion was a bottle of Taylor rose' poured into styrofoam cups and a small loaf of bread. The benediction to the eight "ushers" was the application of a red clown dot on their cheeks, bestowed by the two clowns holding sticks of makeup. At the end, "love balloons" were passed out to the congregation and everybody hugged everybody.

"There are three theological points relating to the use of nonverbal liturgy in worship," Shaffer explained. "1. God has a sense of humor and it is not only appropriate to share a little humor, it is absolutely necessary. 2. God is not rational. The tragedy of our religion is that we've tried to sell it as though it were a box of Cheerios . . . God is trans-rational. 3. God works through comedy. The first action is to profane what is seen to be sacred, then make sacred what was profane and raise it to a new level."