Theme: Loving Your Neighbor
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous children’s television program, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, Focus Features has released a superb documentary. Won’t You Be My Neighbor examines the life of Fred Rogers the show's creator, producer, writer, and star, doing what he loved to do . . . being an advocate for children. The ninety four minute film is heart warming, profound, and convicting, a timely reminder that the “still small voice” of loving kindness is more powerful than the bombastic bellows of bullies and pundits.1 Those voices will fade away . . . Mister Rogers is still speaking.
The movie opens with Fred Rogers seated at a piano explaining his mission and the means by which he would accomplish it. Fred recognized the power of the new mass medium, television, and knew what a person saw and heard on its screen became part of who they are. He was determined to use TV in a positive way and help children through “the modulations of life”.2 He believed love or the lack of it is at the root of everything, and he saw things on television which deeply disturbed him, so he postponed his entrance into seminary and dove into the world of educational children’s TV at a new station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Mister Roger’s Neighborhood
After getting his feet wet with The Children’s Corner on WQED-TV, Fred left the show and returned to seminary. When he completed his education, he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church but his pulpit, pastorate, and parishioners, were far from orthodox. Fred launched Mister Roger’s Neighborhood in 1968.
Believing a neighborhood is a safe place, a place where one is taken care of, Fred saw television as an opportunity to build a community out of an entire country. His neighborhood would not be a fantasy, pie in the sky kind of place. No, there would be real issues and the problems children are faced with such as death, divorce, wars and prejudice. Yet because it was Mister Roger’s neighborhood he would be there, the calm loving shepherd in sweater and sneakers, guiding them through the valleys and vicissitudes of life and always assuring them they are loved.
The lyrical opening song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, was an invitation to every child to come out of the scary world and enter a peaceful kingdom . . . The Peaceful Kingdom.3 Fred Rogers was every bit as subversive as the first person who offered an invitation into God’s Kingdom, Jesus Christ.
There was a whole spiritual dimension to Mister Roger’s Neighborhood which viewers and critics alike never really understood or even saw. Fred knew his speaking personally one to one through the television screen was the most spiritual thing he could do, and the space between him and the other person was holy ground. This was not only holy ground, it was contested ground. He was in a battle with spiritual forces that would use children to mold and recreate them in the images of Mammon, Mars, and Aphrodite, the ancient yet ever present gods of money, power, and sex.
Fred’s show was a wealth of classic Christian spiritual disciplines; silence, simplicity, frugality, chastity, celebration, fellowship, confession, submission, and service, all done in Kairos time. No one actually recognized he was giving millions of children lessons on holiness, on life in the Kingdom of God, and teaching them to love their neighbor as they love themselves, the second greatest commandment (Matthew 22:39).
People were surprised, even shocked by the children’s love for, and adoration of Fred, never perceiving it was a childlike response to The Holy, to a true reflector of Christ. For most adults, Fred Rogers was an anomaly, for some of the more cynical he was a laughing-stock.
The Greatest Evil
Fred had to endure years of parodies, caricatures, and mockeries of Mister Rogers, and while some of these were benign, most were malignant. In response he did what he had always done (having experienced being bullied and bruised as a child). He took the pain in, transformed it, and disseminated more love. For he knew “those who try to make you feel less than who you are”, are committing the greatest evil, and the way to defeat evil was through the cruciform power of God’s love.
This was not to say the pain did not hurt or leave a mark. Through his alter ego, Daniel the tiger, Fred expressed perfectly how mistakes and accusations lodge deeply in a child’s spirit making them question whether they are the mistake. The answer to this question must come from the outside, from another person; for as Lady Aberlin reminded Daniel, “It’s not so easy to quiet a doubt, but if you make a duet you will hear support as well as your fears”. Fred Rogers gave his life to singing duets of love and support with millions of children who heard only their inner fears and doubts.
As for his critics who blamed him for making a generation of narcissists because he told the children they were loved and special and didn’t have to do anything sensational in order to be loved, the only thing that can be said is they display their ignorance. The foundational belief of Christianity is human beings are created in the image of a good God, and even though they are marred by sin, God loves them so much he sent his own son to die for them in order to restore them to His “Neighborhood” and to their high calling as Royal Priests. It is this calling Mister Rogers spoke to in his last message.
Repairers of Creation
Two years before his death Fred Rogers was asked to do a promo for the children in the wake of 9/11. He was troubled in his spirit over the ongoing struggle against evil and questioned whether his words could do any good. Seated once more at his piano, he spoke not just to children but to an entire nation of hurting people. He told them, “No matter what our particular job in the world today, we are called to be repairers of creation.” To be people of joy, light, hope, faith, pardon, and love; for these are not just words or attributes, they are forces; forces of modulation, forces of transformation, forces which overcome powers of darkness.
As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “And if you give yourself to the hungry, And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, And your gloom will become like midday. And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. And those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell” (Isaiah 58:10-12). Fred Rogers embodied these words.
“His lord said to him: Well done, good and faithful servant: because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Matthew 25:23
1. I Kings 19: 9-13
2. Modulation: 1. (music) a change from one key to another in a piece of music . . . 2. the process of changing from one form or condition into another