In the early 1990s, Savannah’s Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church had hit hard times. The once-thriving downtown church’s attendance had shrunk to about 25 and the average member’s age was 80. The church faced the very real possibility of closing its doors.
Despite the bleak outlook, a group of women who had been meeting since the 1970s continued to gather together each Monday night to make colorful and cute clown dolls. A couple of husbands accompanied their wives and got involved, too. Dubbed “Busy Bees,” the group initially began meeting for fellowship and fun. The clown doll craft was chosen partly because the task of making its main components – 96 fabric “yo yos” – could be divided among the members and then sewn together to make the final product.
And when times got tough, the Busy Bees began selling their clowns. The proceeds helped pay the church’s bills and helped keep the lights on – literally.
When Rev. Billy Hester came to the church in 1993 the dolls were being sold for about $8. Seeing that their value was much higher, he suggested their price be increased.
Today, the dolls sell for upwards of $35; some specialty clowns sell for as much as $100. The proceeds of each sale are still given to support the church’s ministries, but they are no longer needed to pay the light bill.
While the church is no longer dependent upon the revenue stream generated by the clown dolls, they still play a role in church life.
The clown is incorporated into the church’s logo, along with the words, “Where the Joy of God is Expressed Creatively.”
And a clown doll sits on the altar each week, made in the liturgical colors that represent the church season.
Busy Bee Dot Whitlock said that she enjoys the fellowship she finds at the group, and that she enjoys doing something that helps the church.
“When the church was being renovated we gave the money to buy the kneeling pads for the altar,” she said. “We always give the money back to the church; it’s what helped keep the church going and we continue to give to the church.”
During the church’s centennial celebration in 2009, the group presented the church with a $7,500 check, proceeds they earned from selling a limited-edition, commemorative clown doll.
John Naylor doesn’t sew well, but the former human resources executive is a planner and an organizer. He got involved with the group about three years ago, just as plans for the Centennial Clown were getting underway.
Jumping on board with the Busy Bats – the Tuesday evening counterpart to the Bees, who meet on Monday afternoons – Naylor helped the group get organized and conserve the expensive fabric.
The warm, welcoming nature of the church and its focus on inclusiveness and acceptance first attracted Naylor. His work with the Busy Bats nourishes his soul and is a great creative outlet, he said.
“We have one rule with the Busy Bats – that one rule is that there are no rules. There’s room for creativity. It’s rewarding and it’s really good for the soul.”
That emphasis on creativity reverberates throughout the church. Led by Rev. Hester, a Savannah native who pursued a career in theater before being called into the ministry, the church’s creative arts ministry attracts people from Savannah and the surrounding area.
Art teacher Judy Graham is involved with the Busy Bee ministry, the church’s theater ministry and its God on Broadway worship series.
The relationships she’s formed through her involvement with the various ministries have helped shape and guide her faith.
“You become very close to people,” she said. “It’s a lot of people getting together, sewing, laughing, and making money. No matter how bad things get you know that there’s a God out there giving you people, your hands, your mind, and it’s just wonderful. I just enjoy the camaraderie of it all and the faith that people have.”