Earlier this summer I went to see the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” which chronicled the life of The Rev. Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister whose pulpit was the children’s television show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. For those who watched the show between 1968, when the show aired, and the last episode in 2001, Mr. Rogers was a generational icon. The world that Rogers preached to over those three decades was a world in turmoil, a world experiencing unprecedented change in a short amount of time. For the first time, the television brought the chaos of the world directly into America’s living room. No longer could families ignore political assassinations and scandals, the threat of the Cold War, the Sexual Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, bombings, the Technological Revolution, and natural disasters.
One article in Atlantic magazine calls him the “patron saint of neighborliness.” In his uniquely unassuming and gracious way, Mr. Rogers addressed the fears, feelings, and questions of children around anger, trust, honesty, courage, and sadness. Rogers once said of his show that:
“The underlying message of the Neighborhood is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others. ‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’—that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world. The person you happen to be with at the moment is loved, too.”
His primary concern was to foster the “meaningful neighborhood expression of care” in children. In his Neighborhood, three generations of children learned that we could confront our fears and prejudices in a safe and open way. Through simply being kind we could love and support each other through the difficulties and dangers of life, change, and crisis.
One moment of the documentary I found most powerful showed part of an episode from 1969, that aired against the backdrop of national conversation about desegregation and the 1964 event when a hotel manager dumped acid into a pool filled with black swimmers. The show began with Mr. Rogers outside on a hot day marveling at how nice a pool of cold water can feel. Filling a small plastic pool with the garden hose, he begins to soak his feet. Very soon, he gets a surprise visit from Officer Clemmons, the first African-American with a recurring role on a children’s television series. Mr. Rogers invites him to come and soak his feet in the pool. It is clear that Clemmons hesitates a moment in surprise, but then he rolls up the pant legs of his uniform and places his brown feet in the same water as Mr. Rogers’ white feet as the camera holds the shot for several seconds. Just five years after a horrific example of dehumanization and violence Mr. Rogers showed us how Christ’s own reconciliation happens. A gentle minister invites and washes the feet of someone “other” who accepts the invitation and receives healing grace. Mr. Rogers serenely showed that difference was nothing to fear.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus answers the question of a lawyer seeking to justify himself as worthy of inheriting eternal life who asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’s response proclaims a Samaritan as the one who embodies God’s love. Samaritans were the hated enemies of the Jewish people. Samaritans believed that they were the keepers of the true religion. They maintained that the descendants of diaspora Jews, who had been scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire in the Exile, were traitors to God because their ancestors had adapted their religious customs in order to survive in those countries. Samaritans believed that God’s true dwelling place was not in the Temple at Jerusalem, but on their holy mountain. Jesus exalts the hated enemy as the exemplar of God’s Law, and changes the question from “who is my neighbor?” to “who was a neighbor?” The one who showed mercy. Jesus further extends this revelation into the Gospels’ command to “love your enemies, pray and do good to those who hate you” (Matt. 5:43-44, Luke 6:27, 35).
Mr. Rogers was a prime example of Christ’s own love and servanthood that all Christians are called to emulate. Jesus gave us two commands: Love God with all your heart, mind, and being. And the second is the same in essence to the first: Love your neighbor as yourself. The catchphrase of the show’s theme song was the question that I think Jesus asks us to ask of all that God created in the world around us: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Christians should be less concerned with defining who our neighbor is and more concerned with whether we, ourselves, are being neighbor: 1) truly living by word and example the self-giving, reconciling love of God that we profess, and 2) inviting others to participate in that love.
There are endless opportunities for us to practice being neighbor, right here at Holy Cross and beyond our parish doors. If God can trust us to truly live what we profess then God can trust us to love and care for the people that God sends to us... and God is sending people, lots of people! We will confirm several new members when the Bishop visits this fall. In the meantime, let’s continue to practice the radical, reconciling love of God with one another and the other beloved children of God we encounter in our neighborhood at the grocery store, at the gas station, at school, and at play!
Faithfully, in Christ,
Further Fred Rogers quotations for contemplation:
“It is through relationships that we grow best—and learn best.”
“When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the façade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.”
"Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now."
'The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.'