When the Rev. William Holmes introduced the Rev. William Peckham to Holmes' congregation at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church last Sunday, laughter erupted.
Peckham walked up the center aisle wearing a white coat with tails, colorful patent leather shoes that protruded 15 inches beneath his pants bottoms. His face was painted black and white and bore a round, red rubber nose, and he sported a curly red, bule, green and yellow wig.
"If anyone told me five years ago I'd be standing at a pulpit dressed like this one day," Peckham said, "I 'd have sent him to a funny farm."
Peckham, 45, a United Methodist minister from Springfield, Ill., is founder and national director of the Holy Fools, a group of lay persons who use the clown image as a tool in ministering to persons in institutions.
Peckham was here to conduct a clown ministry workshop at the Nebraska Avenue NW church for 60 church members, area clergy and even some professional clowns.
He taught them how to apply grease paint, twist balloons into animal shapes and make people laugh.
"Straight people can sometimes do this type of ministry [to the institutionalized] effectively," Peckham said. "However, my experience proves there are distinct advantages to clown-face ministry. The clown can go anywhere and be accepted by anyone. He bridges every racial and cultural barrier. The clown is everyone's friend.
"Under what other circumstances could a group of teen-agers feel free to visit with every patient in a hospital or nursing home and be accepted by them?" he asked.
Peckham said the Holy Fools are "not out there trying to get people to go the church. Sometimes it's useful to be out there acting out your faith without talking about it. If the essence is self-giving love, as I believe it to be, then we should be giving love, not talking about it."
Peckham also taught his workshop group to reach out and touch. "If there's one key work in my ministry, it's touch," he said. "It seems a little thing to hold someone's hand. Yet there are countless older people who haven't been touched affectionately in 20 years. People need to be touched, and the clown is a great medium. Neither party feels awkward."
Peckham made his debut as a clown in 1973 in Elkhart, ILL. "I wasn't surprised at the kids' reactions to me as a clown," he said, "but when I ran into older church members who'd formerly been depressed and saw smiles light up their faces, it meant a lot to me. I became addicted after that."
In five years, he has helped to develop more than 300 troupes of Holy Fools through workshops he conducts on vacation time. The troupes encompass four countries and 19 religious denominations.
Last Saturday, Peckham and his newest group of Holy Fools tested their newly acquired skills on patients at the Wisconsin Avenue Nursing Home. "Surely the happiest sound in the world is the sound of giggling and laughter in the halls of a nursing home." he said.
Peckham recalled instances when elderly patients in nursing homes who had not spolen to anyone opened up to a clown.
"We let the patients dust us off with feather dusters and gave them balloon animals we made in front of them," said Lee Tucker, 15, who organized the weekend workshop. "They just loved it."
Tucker, a student at Wilson High School, has been clowning and visiting elderly neighbors for more than six months, since Gwendolyne Arbuckle, the church education director, attended one of Peckham's workshops and shared her experience.
Until seven months ago, Peckham had been associated for 20 years with Methodist congregations in Springfield, Ill., where he now is director of Contact Ministries. He runs the ecumenical agency from a store-front called "The Helping Place" in an area he likened to 14th Street NW in Washington.
"I minister to 1,500 people there, including prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts, drunks as well as the hungry and homeless," he said.
He also is on 24-hour call with the police and fire departments and the rescue squad for on-the-scene counseling of families of accident victims.
"You can find me on the streets seven nights a week between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m. I'm shepherd of the streets. Churches and agencies go home at suppertime everywhere. This is the time when there's more need than ever," he said.
Clowning has made him more senstitive to needs of street people, Peckham said.
Even though the Holy Fools became incorporated four months ago, the group has no staff or budget, he said. Peckham hopes to have the group organized by early spring.
"I'm working on a handbook now for members of the Holy Fools," Peckham said. "Maybe I should include my warning to new members -- after clowning once, be prepared to do it for the rest of your life, because it's addicting."