Carlos Van Leer, 80, swept low, readied his long, aged fingers and raced them across his bright red "child's" accordion. He steadied his 6-foot, 2-inch frame, searched the audience of senior citizens who sought refuge from the heat in the basement of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, and caught the dancing eyes of one woman.
Encouraged by the gleam on her face, he serenaded her. And she giggled while others sat by, appearing neither bothered by nor interested in the uncertain notes streaming from Van Leer's shiny accordion. Van Leer, who recently was crowned the official jester at St. Stephen's, did not seem to mind: "How about doing one or two that you folks want to do?"
He danced a jig and then in a mighty baritone voice driven from deep within, so sudden it startled his audience, he sang "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho . . . and the walls came a-tumbling down."
A thin man sitting nearby, whose face was trimmed with a slight trace of despair and a graying beard, unfolded his arms and uncrossed his frail legs. The sadness seemingly melted and a roar of laughter took over.
Van Leer, dripping with sweat by now, wiped his balding head and smiled. He had accomplished part of his mission: to help save the world from disaster, fighting evil with music, tears with laughter and political absurdity with only a clown's satirical wit. To Van Leer, who has spent about 20 years as a local political activist in the church and in the streets, the ancient art of jest -- comic relief -- is not dead.
Van Leer, who often wears a "washable" jester's cap with two bells, loves playing the part of the fool, who during medieval times used clever wit to unravel and reveal the ignorance of a king or a supposed wise man. Today, Van Leer, an official jester in a land with no king to taunt, uses satire to prompt his audience to think about world, national, community and church issues.
"If you can make a point and do it with laughter, there is so much less resistance," he said. "Laughter is able to jump through, across boundaries. Clowns and jesters can do things ordinary people can't do . . . . When I think of all this music waiting to be played and all the people waiting to laugh . . . that's just awful -- enough to make a jester weep."
On Jan. 13, 1986, the vestry of St. Stephen's, 1525 Newton St. NW, a church long known for its political activism, especially during the 1960s under the Rev. William Wendt, voted unanimously to attach an official title to what Van Leer had been doing for years.
William R. MacKaye, a longtime St. Stephen's member who helped create the jester's position in the church, said of the honorary title, "Carlos is a political activist many years standing. He appears in a number of odd places trying to make people laugh about serious situations."
The Rev. Edgar (Ted) Lockwood, interim pastor at St. Stephen's until its newly appointed rector, Carlyle Gill, begins work, said that Van Leer's jesting dates from the church's most activist period in the 1960s.
"During that time there was a great deal of trying to get people to accept a kind of illumination of what God was trying to get them to do. And Carlos developed this notion that he wanted to be a jester like the court jester of old. Most people at St. Stephen's are delighted with his jester title. We don't tell him what to say or do, but we love him . . . and we enjoy him and his ability to put the hot foot to the established order."
Van Leer usually delivers his comic and sometimes complicated messages -- on issues ranging from church to world politics -- to the congregation on Sundays during the church's announcement periods. On a recent Sunday, he awarded golden condoms to the congregation, an integrated group mostly made up of urban professionals in their thirties and forties. Van Leer a week before had received the Golden Condom Award from D.C. Planned Parenthood for speaking in favor of sex education in communities and schools, and on television and radio talk shows.
"I try not only to come through with laughter, but also with tears, because life isn't just ha, ha, ha . . . . I've always thought if life is too difficult, send in the clowns."
Van Leer was born in 1907 in Washington and grew up near 14th and W streets NW. His father was an assistant at the Bureau of Budget. Van Leer graduated from Yale University in 1928 with a degree "in a little bit of everything." He prides himself on being the only Yale graduate listed as a musical activist in the school's alumni yearbook.
After graduation, Van Leer worked as a salesman of "everything from Fuller brushes to insurance to medical equipment." He retired as a real estate salesman in the early 1960s. He was a self-described capitalist for 60 years until "one day I was awakened as an activist."
Van Leer, after recuperating from a broken hip that made him hang up moped wheels, is still going strong.
"I'm so doggone alive at the age of 80. I'm at a point in life where no matter how outrageous a person is, I can never be fired from a job. It's only the oldest who can say, 'What does it matter if I play music on the subway escalator?' "
He's been arrested in Vietnam protests on the Capitol steps and thrown out of national town meetings at the Kennedy Center. He protested a D.C. ordinance that prohibited the ringing of bells in public in 1967 and tried to stop the shortening of hours at the Library of Congress, with a sign that said "Fools Scorn Books." For 11 years, he ran an editorial line from his home telephone on which he set to music his opinions on current issues. He received more than 385,000 calls, which burned out one answering machine.
Van Leer, who lives in Bethesda and spends many days at the community public swimming pool letting children create music on his accordion, is most likely to pop up at any local protest waving a plastic sword or a bouquet of daisies for politicians.
He is one who wanted never to grow old before he was wise. "A professor used to say that the tomb of most men could read 'Died at 30; Buried at 70.' I hope my epitaph will be 'A Hard Act to Follow.' "