The Deacon's Bench

Most lay ministers will tell you that parish life can sometimes be a three-ring circus. But here’s a story about a guy in Virginia who knows it better than most:

Sometimes Rob Tessier balances a chair or a desk on his chin to get the attention of his students, he said as he casually grabbed a chair to demonstrate.

Tessier, youth minister and seventh and eighth grade teacher at All Saints Parish in Manassas, uses some of the antics he learned during his professional clown training in his classroom or while ministering to his teens.

The former Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus clown often refers to his time touring around the country as a “missionary experience” that prepared him for his calling to work with young people.

During the year-long nationwide circus tour, Tessier prepared a circus member’s daughter for her first Communion, giving her catechism lessons in their train car. Other ministerial opportunities included visiting the sick in hospitals and bringing “Gospel values” to those he encountered.

“I felt like the circus was mission territory,” he said. “It was not just fun and games, but a mission opportunity.”

It was not the dream of being a clown that led Tessier to the circus. In fact, it happened “on a fluke” he said smiling as he recounted the events. A theatre major in college, Tessier heard about clown college and decided with a friend to tryout just for the experience. Having no expectations, Tessier and his friend applied. Out of 3,000 applicants only 30 would have the opportunity to attend, and to their amazement they were both chosen for two months of 16-hour days of clown training. Following the training only 14 out of those 30 would be offered a spot on tour with the circus, and again, the pair was given the opportunity.

After prayerful discernment, Tessier realized God was giving him this unusual opportunity to serve in a different way. Simultaneously, his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, was preparing to serve as a missionary in Bolivia for a year.

Tessier said their time apart, where they could only communicate once a month for 20 minutes, allowed them to grow closer and helped them focus on “openness and communication.” They would make in-depth tape recordings of their experiences and mail them to each other.

Even though it was often difficult to juggle the life as circus clown and a devout Catholic, Tessier attended daily Mass, sometimes walking two or three miles just to find a Catholic church. To stay spiritually connected with Youth Apostles, a group he had joined as a college student, Tessier prayed the Divine Office.

Being a clown is “not a huge part of who I am,” Tessier said, but he conceded that he uses his training when it comes to his students and teens. The skills come in handy, he said.

“I know how to read an audience,” he said. “I can read my class and I can tell when it’s connecting and when it’s not.” He knows when to continue a lecture and when to switch to an activity or break into discussion.

“I’m able to be present to people,” he said, attributing it in large part to his experience as a clown.

So far, no word of him being drafted to serve at a “clown mass.”

Thank God.

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