WEB EXTRA! Slideshow of the blessing!

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When Pastor Cliff Di Mascio gives free reign over Sunday worship services to a bunch of clowns, there’s no telling what might happen.

At their annual Blessing of the Clowns event on Feb. 18, the First United Church of Christ honored the charitable works of the Medinah Shrine clowns, all of whom were colorfully attired in wigs and larger than life shoes.

Since 1872, the Medinah Shrine clowns have been bringing smiles to families throughout North America. The organization supports the Shriners Hospitals for Children, a network of 22 pediatric specialty hospitals, where children under the age of 18 receive free medical care. The Chicago Shriner Hospital is located in Oak Park.

Lois Gronwold, a longtime member of the congregation, has seen the Medinah Shrine clowns perform for the last 15 years.

“We were in the front row and we laughed at everything,” Gronwold said following Sunday’s performance, err, service.

The service began as it normally would, with a passing of the peace, a few opening words from Pastor Di Mascio, and a chorus song. As part of the church’s call to worship, congregants acknowledged that “God created joy and sorrow and tears and peals of laughter,” thereby setting the service’s playful tone.

Adding to the playfulness, of course, were 17 clowns, who not only joined everyone in prayer but offered halftime entertainment. For nearly 45 minutes they performed a number of skits, ranging from slapstick humor reminiscent of The Three Stooges to pie fights.

“Laughter is a key of faith,” Stephanie Short, daughter of Popcorn the Clown, said. “The great thing about this is that it combines the familiar with the unfamiliar.”

Bob Fitch, also known as Bingo and the director of the clown unit, enjoys all aspects of performing.

“We do it all. Balloons, makeup, skits, picnics and parades,” Fitch said. “We all like kids. It’s not just being a part of the Shriner effort, but also about fully becoming a clown.”

For Z-bo, or Mike Szabo, as he is more commonly known, the unit’s charitable efforts are what motivate him to perform.

“We believe we have the world’s greatest philanthropy,” Szabo said.

Following the worship service was a reception and a bake sale in the lower part of the church. Clowns mingled with congregants, and everyone indulged in cake, candy, and fortune cookies.

The Blessing of the Clowns is no Mardi Gras, Di Mascio claims, but it is a way to fight cabin fever in the winter. Furthermore, it gives people a chance to have a little fun before they get serious about Lent.

“The study of God doesn’t have to be serious all the time,” Di Mascio said. “Humor and play are important to the development of humans.”