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August 13, 2005

Clowning helped deaf man find faith

From: Cleveland Plain Dealer, OH - Aug 13, 2005

As Freedom Rose, his costume colors are red, white and blue

Sarah Pavlik
Religion News Service

Huntsville, Ala. - Few peo ple can say becoming a clown changed their life, putting them on a spiritual path after years of struggling with deafness. But Buddy Lemaster, who has entertained thousands of children as Freedom Rose, the Patriotic Clown, can.

Since the early days of his 14-year clown career, he has sewn "I am a Christian clown, I don't just speak it, I live it," conspicuously on the back of every costume.

He became deaf at 21 after inhaling fruit tree poison on his parents' property in Huntsville and battled alcohol and depression for many years before finding his niche in life.

"I tried to get involved in the deaf culture, but I never fit in because I wasn't born that way," he said. "I didn't fit in in the hearing world, either."

Despite the depression and drinking, Lemaster, now 56, managed to advance quickly at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, moving through the ranks to the position he holds today as an intrusion analyst.

It was at the arsenal that he got the chance to create a series of short stories for the Redstone Rocket, in which Freedom Rose, a soft-spoken patriot, was the main character.

"When I would write, I would pray with a beer in one hand and a pen in the other asking God to change me," said Lemaster, now an expert lip reader. He also learned sign language so he could help with a local deaf-awareness program.

Eventually he became so enamored with the moral character and courage of his literary creation, Lemaster decided to bring him to life. Little did he know that through that process he would find what he had been seeking since he lost his hearing - a sense of belonging and a genuine faith.

From the first red, white and blue sequin-covered denim jacket, Lemaster has sewn his own clown costumes. Whether he uses scraps of material off a bargain bolt of fabric or a pair of jeans from the thrift store, all of Lemaster's costumes resemble a Fourth of July parade.

"Putting together the costumes gives you a lot of time to talk to God, and at some point I realized I needed a closer walk with him," he said.

In 1991, at the invitation of a member of a local Baptist church, Lemaster began attending and still does today. He said it was there that he was able to grow and heal.

While making the costumes gives him time to discover his faith, being a clown gives him a chance to express that faith.

With every smile his whimsical balloon creations bring to a child, Lemaster believes he is making a difference. At some events, he'll use nearly 6,000 balloons and exhaust as many as four electric pumps.

"So many people grow up believing that no one cares about them, but I hope that I can plant a seed that helps them heal," Lemaster said.

"The children love him to death," said Betty Haney, a volunteer coordinator at the Huntsville chapter of the American Red Cross who has enlisted Lemaster's help numerous times. "He is a big asset to us and always attracts a crowd at our fund- raisers."

As much as Lemaster enjoys the local festivals and fund-raisers, he hopes to take Freedom Rose on the road once he retires.

"I want people to see they have to choose their path: Trust the Lord, do drugs, or do something else," Lemaster said. "I've done both, but I didn't really have a life until I started trusting him."

He hopes to start sharing his story during future appearances.

"My testimony shows others that you can rise above your circumstances," he said. "You can tell people that, but to make a difference, you have to live it."

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