MANATEE -- Johnathan Lee Iverson is the first African American and youngest ringmaster in the history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth, taking the reins of the circus for the first time in 1998 in his early 20s.
But lesser known is the fact that Iverson is a passionate Christian who prays unceasingly during the day and has won the respect of the circus' large and diverse faith population by his tolerance for the faith of others.
"My co-workers come from every walk of life, and I love them," Iverson said by phone this week while rehearsing at the Florida State Fairgrounds for the 144th edition of the Greatest Show on Earth, which is called "Legends" and is scheduled to kick off a two-year run Jan. 1-5 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa.
"Their humanity is not lesser to me because they have a different faith or lifestyle," Iverson added. "Jesus said we are to love people and by loving them, we get closest to holiness. I have Muslim circus members ask me if they can come and pray in my dressing room."
It seems Iverson and the Greatest Show on Earth have figured out a way to make a wildly diverse faith community work, with thousands of employees speaking 15 different languages and practicing
about as many faiths.
How they have done it is a story of acceptance and understanding, said Iverson, 36, a native of New York City.
The story actually begins in Ellenton, where Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus and other shows that tour the world, recently decided to relocate its winter quarters to several buildings along U.S. 301 North that were developed by The Siemens Corp. and most recently occupied by General Electric.
Feld Entertainment Studios in Ellenton now includes on its 47-acre campus a warehouse with more than 10,000 costumes for shows like Disney on Ice and the Greatest Show on Earth, a fiberglass shop and 40 bays for Monster Jam, and huge soundstages for rehearsing Nuclear Cowboyz and Marvel Universe Live.
But Ellenton is also the place where the circus people meet, see each other practice and begin to understand each other, Iverson said.
Nicole Feld, whose grandfather, Irvin Feld, started the company and who is the company's executive vice president and producer of the shows, said it is impossible not to respect a fellow circus performer's faith once you see them practice their circus art.
"You have to consider what they do," Feld said. "Most are risking their lives on a daily basis and literally, three times on Saturday all for the pure enjoyment of others.
"They spend their whole lives perfecting a discipline that lasts five to seven minutes all to bring pleasure to other families," Feld added. "You are only able to bring that passion if you have a high level of spirituality."
Some circus performers climb on a high wire, the width of a thumb, while suspended 25 to 30 feet in the air, Feld said.
"I will tell you a story," Feld said. "We have eight women who the public will see at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. They are like a human chandelier. They hang by their hair and hang from each other. It's extraordinary to see. One is from Mexico. One is from Brazil. One is from Ukraine. It takes them 45 minutes to get their hair ready. It's all about trust and faith. Their hair has to be wrapped perfectly because their lives hang in the balance. Can you imagine putting your life in the hands of another? That's faith. I give them a tremendous amount of credit. They will perform close to 1,000 performances in 90 cities before 11 million people over the next two years and the audiences will never hear the way they pray for each other before every show."
Testifying. Witnessing. Iverson said that goes on all day long between circus performers of different faiths.
Father Jerry Hogan a Catholic chaplain who has been ordained by the Pope to serve circuses in America, comes and blesses everything from the people to the circus trains, Iverson added.
"Ringling is the most diverse institution in entertainment," Iverson said. "We have Muslims. We have Christians. Our owners are Jewish. The circus is a congregation of nations and cultures. I enjoy wonderful conversations with people. We have spirited debates, but never with animosity."
Being with so many people of different faiths, Iverson has learned to be a different kind of Christian, he said.
"Being a Christian, one of the most dangerous things is that we are so willing to share that we may not listen to the needs of the person we are sharing with," Iverson said. "You can be wrong being right. We must remember, what makes Jesus so effective is that He didn't just come with a message, He came with a light. He addressed people's needs first. Remember when he fed the hungry. He didn't say, 'Take a break and listen to me and then we will eat.' He said, 'I will feed you.' We are so busy getting membership and pumping up our egos that we forget to listen."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.