John Garrett, a computer analyst, and his wife, Grace, a
church youth group coordinator, are fools for the sake of Christ.
When they're not working, the Columbia residents dress as clowns and go into churches, hospitals and nursing homes to spread the gospel. The 38-year-old man becomes "Frank and Sense," a sad clown, and his wife becomes "Ariana Springtime."
"She's a happy clown," Mrs. Garrett said.
"She has big blue hair, a floppy bow, balloon pants, a ruffled shirt with polka dots, and a heart on her cheeks and a couple of tears."
The two parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Mission in Columbia have clowned around in churches for a decade as members of Faith and Fantasy, a 20-year-old nondenominational clown ministry founded in Columbia in 1974.
Members act out biblical passages, using their talents to spread their faith.
Their performances are followed by Communion, usually with a priest or minister present, and small gift offerings.
Wednesday, another member of the clown ministry, George Martin, a deacon at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Columbia, is to perform for children at the county's Domestic Violence Center.
The ministry once included 300 clowns in the county, Mr. Martin said.
But, because many struck off on their own, the number has shrunk.
One reason, speculates Mr. Garrett, is that the ministry is an informal one.
"It's sort of a nonorganization -- clowns don't follow rules very well," said Mr. Garrett, laughing.
"If people want to come and be part of it, they can."
Historically, clowns have been part of worship services, Mr. Garrett said.
He noted that during the Middle Ages, people known as "holy interrupters" would inject themselves into a formal service to make it less somber.
The local performances began in 1974 when the Rev. Floyd Shaffer, former minister at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Columbia, founded Faith and Fantasy at a vacation Bible school.
Mr. Shaffer, who now lives in Ohio, wrote a book, "If I Were a Clown," emphasizing what he saw as the humorous side of God.
"You can't read the opening chapters of Genesis and see a dull and somber Creator," Mr. Shaffer writes. "When you look at the flowers with their many hues, some with pleasant aromas, others with wild and bizarre shapes, and a few that even eat insects, there has to be a chuckle in response.
"The animals encourage God's laughter to the surface: the long-necked giraffe, anteaters, a duck-billed platypus, and a most impractical sort of thing -- the hippopotamus."
The founder of Faith and Fantasy taught his students how to choose their clown names and characters, put on makeup and perform.
Most of all, he urged them to adopt a childlike attitude in putting across their message.
That message has remained with those who continue to participate in Faith and Fantasy.
"Clowning is more about what comes out of you rather than what you put on," Mr. Garrett said.
In the early years, Faith and Fantasy graduates took part in many local events, including the Columbia Fair and in countywide Fourth of July parades.
Their participation wasn't welcome everywhere, however.
For instance, at a youth conference in the 1970s at the Astrodome in Houston, some people thought the Christian clowns were blasphemous.
"Pastor Shaffer said we were treated like Jesus, kicked at, hit and mocked," said Arlene Trapp, a Columbia resident and an original member of the clown ministry troupe.
"But the last two days, people were standing in line."
The group may be less active today, but the clowns still perform. And every six months they gather for a potluck dinner or special activity.
The members say they get as much as their audience from the activity.
"It's very spiritual," said Peg Chester, 51, from Glen Burnie who takes part in the Columbia clown ministry.
"I feel extremely humble when I'm doing a clown presentation. It's a centering time for me."
And members vow to keep the ministry going.
"I can't imagine putting my clown in the closet," Mrs. Garrett said.