All the World Loves a Clown
by WILLIE COLÓN
On Aug. 4, 2014, Pastor Mike Dubbs ‘86 walked out of his house in Southern Pines, N.C., eager to embark on his first clown mission. He was decked out as his alter-ego, Dubbsy, in full hobo clown regalia — black felt hat, thrift store shirt and pants, hideous brown vest with a 99-cent price tag, red suspenders, mismatched rental bowling shoes — ready to help spread a little laughter, love and healing to another continent.
At the Raleigh-Durham Airport, he was the only clown in town. At JFK in New York City, he came upon two other clowns who were going his way. And at the Jorge Chavez Airport in Lima, Peru, Dubbsy and his clown friends turned a corner and …
“There was nothing but clowns!” he recalls. “It was like a clown explosion.”
It sounds spectacularly silly, but consider this: Nutrition was the theme of this year’s two-week clown mission to Iquitos, Peru. Organized by the Gesundheit! Institute, a West Virginia-based alternative health care facility, the mission brought together 130 clown volunteers from 16 countries to address the high incidence of malnutrition in the region.
As for flying to Peru as Dubbsy? “One requirement is that you travel from your front door in character,” he explains. “They want committed people who are willing to say, ‘Here’s what I’m doing. I’m a clown.’ ”
“Eclectic” pretty much sums up Mike Dubbs’ resume and life adventures. This Bloomsburg native and Tau Kappa Epsilon brother graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business and office administration. He has been a professional photographer and a township manager, and says he misses the 10 years he volunteered as the football game announcer at Redman Stadium.
“I got a good seat for every game and subs from places like Balzano’s,” he says.
After finally heeding a calling he’d ignored for years, he began down the path that led to his current position as pastor at Community Congregational Church in Southern Pines.
Meanwhile, the path that led to clowning had its origins in a job Dubbs had while he was in college. “I would dress as a gorilla or a clown or a kissing bandit and take balloons to hospitals and people’s homes,” he says. That eventually morphed into full-on clowning for kids’ parties.
Today he clowns several times a month as part of a group of clown volunteers at a local hospital. And in the way that one thing often leads to another, it was a clown friend from the hospital who told Dubbs about the Gesundheit! Institute — and the possibility of going international with his clowning.
Peru was an incredible experience, Dubbs says, but the opening day welcome parade was extra special. “That was the highlight as the kids’ faces lit up when they saw the clowns,” he recalls. “They knew we were there for them, and I could see hope in their faces. I had never seen such poverty and such joy in the same place.”
He also remembers having a hard time unfurling the Bloomsburg banner he’d brought along because the children kept running up to it and yelling “El Lobo! El Lobo! (The Wolf! The Wolf!).”
The two weeks were packed with workshops for the volunteers and local participants alike. These events provided Dubbs, a self-taught juggler and clown, a unique chance to improve his clowning by visiting schools, nursing homes and prisons and taking a trip to a village down the Amazon River.
“And when they found out I was a pastor, they asked me to talk to patients at a mental health clinic,” says Dubbs, who speaks a little Spanish. “I was still dressed as a clown, just without the face makeup.”
One of his biggest take-aways was probably that old cliché: Don’t sweat the small stuff. “I learned not to be so worried about my costume as long as it’s colorful,” he says. “The joy is in the clown visit, not in how accurate my outfit is.”
The Gesundheit! Institute has organized clown missions since 1985, when founder Dr. Patch Adams led a group of volunteer clowns to the former Soviet Union. Adams promotes an alternative health care model that connects individual health to the health of the family, community and the world. Robin Williams famously portrayed him in the 1998 hit movie, Patch Adams.
There are six to 10 clown trips every year, and they’re meant to create joyful atmospheres that enhance the well-being of individuals and groups. But is there hard evidence that humor heals? Not quite yet, says Mary Katherine Duncan, Bloomsburg psychology professor. But we’re getting there.
“At this point there’s not a lot of science, so we’re trying to define it and study it and measure it,” Duncan says. “We have a growing body of correlational evidence — happier people tend to live longer, they’re more productive at work, they earn more.” Humor also helps us deal with sadness, anger and other negative emotions and experiences, she says.
“But can humor get us to the point of thriving?” Duncan asks. “We’re looking into it, and folks like Patch Adams are helping us understand it.”
Based on his experience, Mike Dubbs understands it pretty well already.
“If nothing else, humor provides a momentary distraction from whatever problems we might have,” he says. “I see that at the hospital. And I like to imagine that when the kids in Peru are having a hard day, they think about the clowns and smile.” •
Willie Colón is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.