There's an old household saying: If Mama's not happy, ain't nobody happy. What occurs within the core of a family has wide-ranging impact. This is especially true when families are in close quarters and periodically on the move.
Even the brightest of LEDs cannot lighten some challenges that carnival families face. While others can go to their local clergy for solace and guidance, "local" becomes a moot point when migrating from town to town.
Enter Father John
Father John Vakulskas Jr. was never one to see a need and let it slide. Not even two months after his 1969 ordination, when he received an urgent call from a sojourning carnival owner. Jennie Klein (from Klein's Shows out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota) was
on the phone. Her husband, Henry, had fallen quite ill and needed help quickly. She was relying upon the young priest's compassion and local contacts.
Father John did not disappoint. He not only knew a doctor from the nearby emergency room, but was also able to arrange for a police escort there. Turns out that Henry "had double pneumonia and food poisoning and total exhaustion."
Father John further recalls, "When Henry got better, Jennie asked whether I had ever thought to have a ministry for folks out on the road. She lamented that they didn't have enough time to get groceries, let alone care for their spiritual lives. So that's how it all started."
"Klein's was a typical family show with an excellent reputation. Henry was a mechanic in charge of all the equipment, and Jennie was the office manager. Through them I met a lot of show people. I've never since been turned down at any show. I'm now baptizing children of people whom I baptized 30 years ago. I'm now 73 and officially retired, but I still feel the pull to reach out to all God's children."
Father John's vocation had been developing right along. Although explaining that "the Lord doesn't come out with a news flash," he adds: I felt called, period. I knew I had found my home when I started studying theology and Scripture. I just couldn't dig into that enough.
Nevertheless, it is people who are at the heart of Father John's ministry. He says, "I loved working with people back in my grandmother's grocery store in Sioux City, Iowa. Everyone was poor back then, but we didn't know we were poor. I was also in the American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps, and part of our fundraiser was to work in a Sioux City carnival to raise money for our trips, etc. As I grew close with the other carnival workers, I understood that we are all God's children and equal in the eyes of God."
He remains wholeheartedly dedicated to this spiritual truth. It upsets Father John greatly when such "normal family people" are dubbed "carneys," and he equates that "pejorative" term with the "N word." He then adds, "Last year, Pope Francis honored me with a personal invitation to the Vatican. The Pope told me to tell all the carnival folks (he called them 'the traveling show industry'), 'Thank you for providing family entertainment for all of God's children' - those were his exact words."
The beloved Carnival Priest further explains, "We still have to work to get rid of these stereotypes from the past. These are family operations with millions of dollars of equipment moving into towns to provide them with a mini Disney World right nearby for a week or so. A lot of folks can come out here to get away from their problems for a while - not to solve them, but to recharge their batteries in order to have a better attitude toward life and living when they get back home. That is the great service that carnival folks provide."
You might be wondering how this ministry works, sans fixed pews and pulpit. Father John's website (www.carnivalpriest.com) provides readers with tried-and-true practices. Featured prayers include The Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary and The Apostles' Creed. Scriptural passages include The Ten Commandments and The Beatitudes. Sacraments include Baptism, Matrimony and Anointing of the Sick.
Father John adds, "I've done a lot of funerals over the years. Sometimes I didn't even know that family member directly." His website offers details concerning a "Memorial Service for Show People." This service includes the hymn "Amazing Grace," a passage from the Book of Lamentations, a responsive reading called "The Consolation of Faith," an excerpt from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, a brief homily, plus a wonderful poem titled "A Happy Ending."
It is the Carnival Priest's fervent wish that more clergy would get involved with this fulfilling ministry. He explains, "Over the years, there have been a few - they're gone now. I'm not aware of any others on a long-term basis. What I try to do is meet with local clergy and ask, 'Have you ever thought of asking when the carnival comes to town about how to be of service to them?' They often reply, 'I've never thought of that.' People tend to think of all the rides and games, but not about the people behind all those rides and games. Chambers of Commerce appreciate the business that traveling shows bring to towns. That's the financial aspect, but there's a human aspect too."
Father John concludes with this personal tale: "I try not to have regrets, and this one's not with a capital R because it wasn't deliberate, but I still wish I had acted differently. There once was a show maintenance guy called 'Dollar Bill.' His name was Bill, and he would clean fairgrounds for a dollar a night. He would longingly say, 'Father John, I've never flown in my life.' I'm a pilot and offered to take him up, but things were always so busy. Bill died of a heart attack before we ever got to go. So please don't wait. The world needs your goodness now!"