petunia on the today show

December 8, 2017


“How does a non-religious clown find herself telling a story in church?” 


I am sitting across from Today Show news anchor, Craig Melvin, wishing I had come to some kind of conclusion on my religious beliefs before sharing them on national TV. But cameras are rolling, mics are on, and though I have no idea what to say, my mouth is already moving.


One week ago I told a story about my clown, Petunia, at my friend’s new church. I had met my friend through storytelling, and overlooked her being a pastor because she cursed and laughed out loud and didn’t seem to mind that I was a lost soul. In fact, she never asked me what or if I believed, only one day emailed to ask if Petunia would like to tell a story at her new church. Had it been anyone else, any other church, I might have declined. But I believed in my friend, in what she was creating—a church built around storytelling—and it looked like I wasn’t alone. The Today Show, too, was interested in this new Chicago church that was brewing beer, building community, and sent a film crew to capture what this church was all about. What I didn’t realize is that by attending church (even if only to share a five minute clown story) I might be affiliated with church, and God forbid, I might even have to talk about it.


But let me back up. I was raised by an atheist father and culturally Catholic mother. Between the two I learned to poke holes in any claims that weren't supported by science, and afterwards feel appropriately guilty for doing so. My dad raised such a stink about my brother and I going to Sunday school that my mom pulled us out before I learned to love or fear or feel much of anything about God. The notion of God conjured images of a plump grandfather-type with a fluffy white beard observing us from his cloud castle, deciding if we were good or bad, and worthy of our wishes. Similar to my belief in Santa Claus, any hopes I had about God were quickly snatched away on my fifth Christmas when my dad informed me (without my asking) that all benevolent childhood figures—Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, yes, even the Tooth Fairy—were fakes.


For years my mom tried to convince me that believing was a choice, but the damage of truth could not be undone. If a fat man couldn’t fit down a chimney, then how could a man in the clouds answer prayers? If the quarter under my pillow wasn’t from a toothbrush riding pixie queen, then all miracles were suspect.


My skepticism didn't prevent me as a prepubescent teen, teen, and adult from praying for boobs, it just meant that when the boobs never arrived, I had one more reason to add to a growing list why God most certainly did not exist. 


On holidays I’d agree to go to church with my mom because I knew it would make her happy, and part of me wanted the ritual. I liked the idea of church, of spending time with the same people on Sunday, of a larger community who might even care about you. I even liked the idea of communion, the consistent choreography of it, though when it came time for my row to commune, I would have to do my own kind of awkward choreography, slinking low in the pew since I had never been confirmed, didn’t know what to say once I got to the altar, and anyway, wasn’t it extremely unhygienic to drink out of the same wine glass?


In high school a friend of mine and I decided to go church shopping. We were reading Dante’s Inferno and thought we owed it to ourselves as citizens of the world to experience all religions. I wasn’t interested in joining up, I just wanted to see what I was missing. We went to the meditation center, sat zazen, attended Jacob’s Well, dropped by our friend’s synagogue. Our shopping became more cultural experiment than anything, often ending in long conversations on the self-serving nature of prayer, which bolgia we would be sentenced to for our sins, and the Hitler Theory: if Hitler was allowed to exist, no way was there a God. 


At some point my church shopping and on again/off again yoga practice rubbed off, because if you asked me in college what I believed, I would have told you I was open. If you pressed me, I might have even used the word spiritual. Spiritual was tie die, bohemian, loose, free floating, non-committal, like me. If something went my way, I’d applaud The Universe, or thank The Cosmos for looking out for me. And while some people might have substituted the word God, I chose to steer clear of any names that might define my beliefs, and therefore, who I was.


And maybe that’s why my discovery of clowning was such a relief in the first place. Because clowning was everything religion wasn’t. Clowning was liberating, expressive, creative; religion was constricting, repressive, scripted. Or so I thought. Until I went to my friend’s church.


Two weeks ago I told my clown story to a group of strangers in a large chapel with the same multicolored mosaic windows I used to stare into as a kid, wondering when we could go home and eat dinner. But I was not wondering about an escape route this time because I was listening. I was listening to my friend preach about creativity, how we are all created and therefore creative. How it is our job to live our most creative lives as a way of fulfilling our potential and serving others. After the service I met people. Lovely, inviting, kind people who were curious and smart and inclusive. I hugged some of them. I even held one of their babies. And when I left, I was confused because I had just been to church and I was not religious.


“So how does a non-religious clown find herself telling a story in church?” 


In all honesty, I do not remember what I told Craig Melvin on the Today Show when he asked me. I suppose we will all find out tomorrow morning, when the interview airs.


But I know what I would tell Craig now: clowns do not concern themselves with human problems like egos and identities and statistics and the big bang theory. Clowns show up. Clowns are open. Clowns embrace it all: the known and especially the unknown. And this clown is just getting started.

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©2017 by Maria Vorhis.