MODESTO, Calif. — Sid Teske’s role as Turnip the clown is a far cry from his previous career as an industrial psychologist.
“I worked for the federal government doing hiring, training, efficiency consulting, employee problems, some career counseling,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Minnesota. “I did a lot of personnel research to project the cost of various salaries and benefits, and potential employee reactions to changes in management.
“In ’93, I told somebody that my left brain was all I had used for 40 years. I was wondering if there was anything left in the right side.”
The answer was yes. A friend took a clowning class and told Teske, then 50, that he needed to take one, too. Fifteen years later, he’s taken his Christian clowning skits around the world — to Poland, Russia, Latvia, Germany and Mexico, along many stops in the United States. He plans to add Argentina and the Ukraine in 2009.
The 65-year-old is amazed at how many doors have opened to him since he first put on the red nose and white makeup.
“It’s been much more than I ever imagined,” he said. “I’m enjoying it more than I can explain. The incredible power of serving others and the amount of joy that comes back to me brings tears to my eyes. I can’t be more grateful. It’s been an incredible ride. I have no pride in all of this; it’s all God’s grace and love that shows through.”
In 2005, pastor Dan Stime of Calvary Lutheran Church in Modesto, Calif., saw a clowning booth at his denomination’s annual convention in Ohio. He found out there was a need for clown costumes, so he brought back a couple of patterns, thinking that the women of his congregation, big on quilting and other sewing projects, would be happy to participate.
“When he came back and told me, I stood there grumbling, ‘We have enough to do without this! I don’t want to meet this man,’ ” said Betty Polack, who helps lead the quilting group. “The pastor kept pushing us, and I didn’t want to do it. I prayed, ‘Lord, if you’re wanting me to do this, you’ll have to make me willing, because I don’t even want to meet Sid.’
“Well, I met Sid. He came to Modesto to visit with Dan and meet us on one of the days when we had quilting. I was totally won over. He was so positive, so upbeat. I went shopping with him that day to get fabric,” she laughed.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Polack, along with about 10 other women in the church, have made between 75 and 100 clown outfits, which Teske distributes around the world.
“In Eastern Europe, they don’t have the (money) to buy the fabric or even the thread to sew the outfits,” she said. “That’s what we do. It’s very engaging. It’s grabbed me, I’ll tell you. I don’t have the desire to be a clown, but we make the clothes. I’m a total convert.”
The international ministry began in 2001 when Teske and several other Christian clowns were invited to Germany and Poland.
“We performed in churches and in the streets,” he said. “We performed first in Poland and the Lutheran bishop came to the performance. He showed up at every performance we did. By the third time, we’re thinking, this is interesting. At our last performance, he came up and said, ‘You must come back to Poland and teach us how to do this, because we’ve forgotten how to laugh.’”
So the group did. It has trained clown troupes in each of the countries, which then perform the biblical skits in their native languages.
For Teske, getting to know the people has been a highlight of his ministry.
“I have clowns who have been active in crime, living on the streets, who are now active in working for (God),” he said. “They love God in a way that puts us to shame. What they will do with their time and their talent are pretty amazing.
“The clowns in Russia have performed in Belarus, and Belarus is closed to missionaries, so this is a way for the message to get there. I’m just amazed.”
In some places, he said, requests to present a gospel message in a church would be turned down, but clowns with gospel messages always get open doors.
“People have told me they have never experienced such openness to the gospel than when the clowns perform,” Teske said. “Suddenly, the gospel takes on much more meaning to them because they have seen it.”
What has he learned in the past 15 years?
“To be a servant,” he said. “That it’s not about me; it’s all about Jesus.
“No one would ever have predicted that church clowns would have this kind of impact. Nobody. So how did this happen? It must have been God’s doing. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit moves in someone’s lives when they weren’t expecting it.”
Based on Teske’s performance last year, Stime predicts people have fun at every show. “We laughed; we cried; we hooted; we learned. It was probably the most fun event we’ve ever had at this church,” he said.