TAMPA, Fla. – The clown walked into church like he owned the place.
KoKoMo stood proudly in the sanctuary of Carrollwood Baptist, his huge white shoes planted firmly, his head-to-toe sequins glimmering, his nose and wig as red as a Christmas bow.
It was no joke. KoKoMo was decked out for God.
The Rev. Tom Rives adopted his alter ego about 35 years ago and has used it ever since. The message delivered in his high-pitched voice is weighty for a clown: It is of love and salvation.
Rives believes clowning is a means to teach about Christ. "People who wouldn't talk to a preacher will talk to a clown," he says.
KoKoMo and a troupe of clown friends have also shown up at prisons, hospitals, fairs and shopping malls here. The King's Clowns, as they call themselves, aim to proselytize while entertaining, disarming their audiences with their silly characters.
Carrollwood's sanctuary is dotted this night with red and white poinsettias and rows of chairs filled with people. Out of sight, Rives and 10 other clowns gather in a circle while the pastor prays.
"Father, may the message get across," he says in a deep voice with a slight Southern drawl.
Within moments, Rives appears before the congregants, his face caked in white, a tiny blue hat perched crookedly on his head.
"Hi!" he squeals. "I'm KoKoMo the Clown!"
What follows is an hour-long series of skits performed by the clowns, each with a Christmas theme and a Christian message: Be thankful. Honor Christ daily. Remember it is more blessed to give than receive.
In between acts, KoKoMo enlists the help of children to pull off magic tricks. He transforms a giant playing card into one displaying an image of Christ. A stuffed dove is brought to life. A little girl's jaw drops when KoKoMo turns numerous colored scarves into one multicolored piece of fabric.
Vicki Musser, 50, who came to watch the clowns' show, said children and adults alike can take away something positive.
"It's not so formal in this kind of service. You can relax a little more," she said. "And I think they can understand a little better."
The act was born in Tennessee around 1970, when Rives was new to ministry and attended a workshop sponsored by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clowns. He never expected to pair his work with his love of the circus, but before long, it just made sense.
Rives sometimes incorporates clown skits in his regular services. A couple of times a year, there's a full clown service, and the troupe regularly visits other places.
Clowning, the 61-year-old pastor says, has allowed him to reach people who otherwise would not be reached. Some have accepted Christ. Others leave with questions about their faith. And many simply experience an innocent joyfulness the clowns see as an expression of Christ's love.
"You can be at a red light dressed as a clown and the people next to you will just be smiling and waving," said Robin Singleton, 45, who has been performing as Skittles for two years while wearing a rainbow-colored jumpsuit and wig.
Rick Racki, aka Riff-Raff, the troupe's only hobo clown, said the outfits make people more receptive to a spiritual message.
"There's something inside them that just opens up," the 43-year-old said. "They're more open. They're less afraid."
When the skits have ended, the clowns have stopped making balloon animals and no one else asks to compare the size of their shoes, Rives walks silently to his office and drapes his costume over a mannequin. The show is over, but his work is never done.