Garet Chester regularly entertains patients at VCU Massey Cancer Center. (Photo by Shawn Stanley)
Garet Chester makes you realize that some people are born to be celebrities.
Funny, because by most accounts, he’s not one —at least not on the order of the Jack Nicholsons or Elvis Presleys of the world (both of whom he did immaculate impressions of, during an hour-long coffee meeting). He enjoyed his share of fame for 10 years as a Richmond radio personality on Q94 and what is now 103.7 Play, and he’s also been in the real estate spotlight here. But his true magic, the transfixing summer storm that is the soul of Chester, lives to serve another purpose.
“I’m a fool for Christ,” he says. A props-toting, outside voice-using, fearless court jester kind of fool, one whose colorful trickery disguises wisdom. Chester shines his vivid light through JOYInC., the Christian comedy nonprofit he created in 2008.
People on five continents have laughed at his antics, from here at the VCU Massey Cancer Center to Uzbekistan.
His first mission trip, to El Salvador in 1990, radically altered his worldview and planted the seed for the eventual emergence of his character the Rev. Giggles, CFO (Chief Foolishness Officer).
“I am the [ultimate] anti-minister,” he says. “ ‘Reverend’ is such an ominous title, so I wanted something quite the opposite to follow it. The name … came as a way of catching folks off-guard,” he explains.
The Mechanicsville resident sings, jokes, plays kazoo, dons fake mustaches, and in general makes jocular mayhem for audiences of all walks of life, but he focuses on comforting the disadvantaged and terminally ill.
“At the Massey Center, I work on the bone marrow transplant floor. … I was a stand-up comedian doing corporate comedy for years, and I once got paid a lot of money to tell jokes to a room full of vice presidents of Xerox. And they laughed, sure. But when I go to Massey, their treatment requires them to have to sit in a chair for five hours. The transfusion reenergizes them and builds them up, but they’re bored, and they’re depressed. So I go in there and I get crazy. There are nurses and equipment all around me, but I sing at the top of my lungs, I do crazy voices … I tear the place up. What I get out of that is worth a hundred rooms full of Xerox VPs. I’ll take that audience any day, even without a paycheck. I very, very rarely take a check from JOYInC.”
Chester still works in real estate and does voice-overs, which pays the bills so he can go on missions and home and hospital visits.
Even before JOYInC., he knew he wanted to make time to help people. Construction missions were his starting point. He made 12 trips to Niger to help build churches, orphanages and clinics before fellow missionaries remarked on his easy, effective manner with the children and elderly there.
“They told me — God told me — that construction wasn’t my thing,” he says. “So my mission trips started changing; I became a minister of God’s joy. During a mission to India, I wore a hat and carried a cane to a clinic that was giving out medicine. The line there was huge, 150 people, and that was my audience. I twirled the cane and knocked off the hat. I picked up my hat and dropped the cane. You know, that kind of thing. And suddenly 150 people are laughing, getting a break from the hardship of their day.”
Even as a child at St. Bridget School, Chester reeled in the laughs. He was the class clown, and the idea that he was funny — that people responded to that part of him — set in motion a desire to make people laugh for the rest of his life. He remembers his later experiences at Benedictine High School: “My teachers would actually let me take over class when they had to run out because they knew I did such great impressions of them. Interestingly, [they] always told me, ‘You’ll never make a living doing that.’ Hmmmm?”
Chester is no stranger to personal hardship. A childhood fraught with psychological abuse had a profound effect on his psyche. “I was constantly punished, negatively spoken to. I was told I’d never amount to anything. My parents constantly fought and eventually divorced,” he explains.
At 19, he was battling personal demons. He dropped out of college at VCU and decided that he wanted to end his life.
“I was ready to go,” he says. “But these Jesus freak girls had been bugging me, and they made me think again. I decided I would give [religion] one shot, and if it didn’t do it for me, I would kill myself. I read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which are all about Jesus. And a weight lifted. This happened during the ‘Jesus movement’ of the ’70s, when there were festivals and such going on, and Christianity had a joyfulness about it. It pulled me out. Of course, I went on what I call spiritual ‘inactive duty’ later and moved to L.A. to do stand-up and a lot of drugs. I also did a duet with Debbie Reynolds,” he says, grinning.
Rather than sticking out as a dark period, the hiatus in Los Angeles seems to have served Chester just as well as any other part of his life. His story is shot through with countless golden streaks of experience that, no matter how dissimilar, collect into a perfect whole. Each part feeds the next, and bolsters it with humor, courage and humility.
He cites his real estate mentor’s theory on life stages: “Survival is when you’re barely making it. Stability is when you’re doing OK, but just. Success is ‘Hey, you’re rockin’.’ And significance is when none of that matters.”
It’s a theory that fits with both his secular and spiritual work, illuminating the belief that joy, and bringing joy to others, is what it’s all about.
The image I’m taking with me from my brief cache of Garet Chester stories is this: a tall, bright-eyed man singing Elvis’ “You Look Like An Angel” to a tough-looking pimp hanging out of an L.A. window. It’s both funny and symbolic, since through Chester’s lens, so many people really are angels. And you better believe the tough guy laughed.