Ringling Brothers Circus Accident Cause for Prayer and Reflection

Johnathan Iverson as Ring Master of Ringling Brothers in 2011
On Sunday, eight aerialists fell 35 feet onto a dancer below when their rigging collapsed above them during a performance of the “Greatest Show on Earth.” Investigators have already tracked the problem down to a single caribiner that failed.

Thankfully, none of the nine performers suffered deadly injuries. They are still in the hospital recovering from broken bones and shock, but the latest news is that they are doing well.

In some ways, this accident can feel like it is a long way from the world of regular work. Few of us find ourselves swinging over a stage from complicated rigging, though workplace accidents happen in nearly every profession. As we join others in praying for a speedy recovery, we also take a moment to reflect on the value that circus entertainers bring to the world and the good work they did on Sunday in the midst of incredible stress and uncertainty. Circus performers remind us that we all need to inspire others, pray for others, pay attention when others may be suffering, and remember the gift of a happy face during times of stress.

Inspire others—inspiration is worth great risk.

One circus performer who not was not part of the show told CNN, “They don’t call it death defying for nothing. As a circus performer it is our job to do the impossible, to stare death in the face and conquer it. We don’t just do it for entertainment. We do it to inspire people, to inspire them to conquer their own fears or overcome their own obstacles.”

I love that quote because it gets at the heart of the entertainment value of a circus. A motorcycle riding on a ferris wheel, a trapeze artist swinging over the net, a tight rope walker, a lion tamer, all of these people show us what it looks like to face the things that scare us with strength.

In this way, circus work honors God when we discipline the human body to be “circus strong” and serve others by expanding their imaginations. The circus can show people what bravery looks like, so we can return to our lives inspired to stand up for what we believe, to jump for the goals that seem just out of reach, and to trust in the support structures that will prevent us from falling.

So what do we do when the structure falls?

Pray for others—intercession is appropriate.

Johnathan Iverson, one of the leaders of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, received and offered prayers from his social media presence as BigTopVoice on Twitter and Instagram. Even mainstream news outlets take note when the ring master requests prayers like Iverson did on Instagram. UPDATE: a recent article in the Providence Journal tells the story from Iverson’s direct perspective. He said, ““When I realized all of the girls were alive, I breathed. I never prayed so hard or cried so hard for something in my life, ever.”

In all of these prayers, you hear the values of Iverson’s work community surfacing over and over again and you see the humble responses of a man receiving prayer and support from the community. After many many notes of encouragement, Iverson posted, “Bless your heart. May your kindness return to you manifold.” And the encouragement feels real. Reading through the list of prayers and encouragement, it is easy to feel the power of this community of workers and those served by their work. “Stay strong,” wrote allusionslighting, “As circus families do.” “Ringling Strong,” wrote botufe. “The circus world is strong and we will support you,” wrote bektrap. ABC news reporter Nicole Gerber wrote, “thoughts and prayers go out to you and everyone else. Hoping you’re all staying #circusstrong, Providence is for you.”

Gerber is referring to Providence, Rhode Island, but surely in a tweet offering prayer, she knows the other meaning of the word. God is for those of us who are hurting, those of us who put ourselves out there in our work to serve the world, to make the world a better place, the greatest place we can make it. Suffering will come. Accidents will happen. But God is for us through it all.

Pay attention—others may be suffering.

One news outlet posted the video of that accident. God forgive me, I watched the clip during my research for this article. I don’t know why I felt the need to watch it, but I did. Some base part of myself, I suppose, wanted to be grateful I was not the one hurt.

In the video, it is apparent that some of the audience didn’t understand what had happened.  They couldn’t believe what they had seen. We rarely expect accidents, so sometimes we can’t even see that one has happened. A voice on the video can be heard saying, “Were they supposed to fall like that?” But a few moments later, after it is very clear that they were not supposed to fall, another voice says, “Cracker Jack. It’s like popcorn. Do you want me to open it for you?”

When I first heard this, I was indignant. How dare this parent be so insensitive! Nine people had been severely injured, and the audience was more concerned about their Cracker Jack. Did they not realize what had just happened? But of course, the parent did realize. The parent was paying close attention to the suffering of others and taking action to protect her child from that suffering.

Which brings me to my last thought.

Put on a happy face—others may need protection.

Not everybody loves the creepy-cute style of circus clowns (I do), but they are good at putting on a happy face. I can sometimes be cynical about people who view the world through rose-colored glasses or people who intentionally avoid the inherent darkness of the world. Or I can misinterpret their efforts to protect the innocent, as I initially did when I heard the woman talking about Cracker Jack with her kid.

It was hard to be cynical, though, when I read story after story on Facebook where people thanked the circus performers for the wonderful job they did distracting the children. Rebecca Riley wrote, “[we were] second row up front and center. Our prayers are with all those performers, their families and coworkers. I commend all staff on their fast response and professionalism during the accident. They handled it in the best possible way, sent clowns out to talk to the kids and explain that these things can happen, and answer any questions they could. The care and concern of the coworkers (which are more like family than we could ever understand) was overwhelming.”

They say that a person’s character is revealed during times of stress. An organization has character too, emerging from the processes and personalities and values of the people in it. Last week, social media gave us a glimpse into the character of the circus community and those served by this community. They are indeed #circusstrong.

Photo at top by Steven Depolo. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.

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