From red noses to red shields
Captains Wanda and Raul Rivera wear their Salvation Army uniforms while taking on daily responsibilities at the Corps Community Center in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. But in their home closet, a more colorful uniform hangs as a reminder of a former ministry.
In the early 1990s, years before joining the Army, Wanda and Raul worked as clowns in Puerto Rico. They entertained young audiences at birthday parties and educated them on Sundays about God’s love.
In Latin America and other Spanish-speaking parts of the world, clowning is more than a sideshow act. It is both a serious art and a business. It requires years of study, training, and commitment. Whether it be comedy, magic tricks or balloon making, performers work hard to hone their skills.
“I can’t just slap on makeup, wear baggy clothes, act silly, and say ‘I’m a clown,’” says Captain Raul. “It’s deeper than all those things, especially when I apply it to ministry. Clowning is a spark that Wanda and I were born with.”
Ministry in the performance
Wanda and Raul were the clowns named Condesita and Condesito, which is Spanish for Little Countess and Little Count. Condesita was a “whiteface” clown, whose job was to lead the performance. Condesito played the role of the “Auguste,” the funnier clown who tried to follow his partner’s orders, usually with humorous results.
Their roles also complemented Wanda and Raul’s personalities and talents. Wanda loved to sing and organize games and activities for the audience, while Raul was adept at magic, making balloon animals, and telling jokes.
“We were in love with the atmosphere and camaraderie of everyone who did what we did,” remembers Raul. “Always being in front of a crowd like this might be unimaginable for other people, but we were born to do it.”
Wanda and Raul also met others who saw the need for Christian clowns in ministry. They decided that just as there were individual groups of clowns who supported and helped each other find jobs, there should be a group that could reach Christian clowns and connect them with people who wanted to host them at Sunday services.
The Riveras, along with three other performers, started their own network, Asociación de Payasos Cristianos Unidos (United Christian Clowns Association APCU) and became both professional and ministry clowns. They were professional because they continued to take paying jobs at social events such as children’s parties. They ministered by visiting churches to spread the love of God through their work.
Ironically, the church that Wanda and Raul attended didn’t allow them to perform their show. “The makeup, the magic, and the whole performance may have just been too much for them,” says Captain Raul.
Still, Condesita and Condesito were sought after for professional, high-paying gigs and Sunday services in Puerto Rico.
“Our weekends became so busy,” says Captain Wanda. “Saturdays were for birthday parties and company jobs where we made money. Sundays were for ministry, which we did for free.”
“After a few years, clowning overshadowed our regular nine–to–five office jobs. We continued to perfect our craft and even entered clown performance competitions, which my husband was very successful in,” says Wanda.
In 1997 when the Riveras moved from Puerto Rico to Buffalo, N.Y., they continued their performances and met other North American clowns. But they were disappointed to learn that the art of clowning, specifically in ministry, was taken lightly rather than seriously as it had been in Puerto Rico. “Other clowns in the business didn’t understand why we put the same amount of work and preparation into a free ministry job as we did into a paying job,” remembers Raul.
Five years later, Wanda and Raul were introduced to The Salvation Army and became officers in 2008.
A team act
Today in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Captains Raul and Wanda Rivera’s clown ministry is as celebrated as it was in Puerto Rico.
“We have only been here since August, arriving in the middle of COVID–19,” says Captain Raul. “There is a big need for entertainment on Sunday for young people, but performances like we want to do are not possible right now. I look forward to the day we can take out our other uniforms again.”
Captain Raul says they’ve learned many lessons from their years of clowning that directly influence their ministry today. As an officer, he is always happy to incorporate his sense of humor and magic tricks. But even more than that is the importance of building a ministry team with Captain Wanda, his uniformed partner. “There were two different characters making our performances work,” explains Captain Raul. “Now, those different personalities are making a Salvation Army corps work.”
“It’s impossible to separate what we do from who we are,” says Captain Wanda, “Being clowns was a calling for us, just like being called by God to serve is too. No matter where in the world we go, we will always be Condesita and Condesito.”
by Hugo Bravo