We are in the throes of a renewed consideration, examination and all-around reminiscence of (and perhaps yearning for) Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the children’s show that ran on PBS from 1968 to 2001. Last year, there was a documentary on the show and now we have a feature film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. I won’t be surprised if everyone will soon be wearing zippered cardigans and indoor sneakers. And, wouldn’t it be lovely if more people adopted the habit of speaking gently yet persuasively to our fellow human beings, especially children?
How nice it is that Mr. Rogers is having a moment. We could use a little (actually a lot) of Fred Rogers these days, with his caring manner, his clear ability to listen and his open desire to learn, about the world and other people.
Born in 1964, I was at just about the right age for Mr. Rogers. Yet, I wasn’t able to watch Mr. Rogers in my house. I watched at the neighbor’s house across the street where my best friend lived. My mother didn’t like Mr. Rogers. I clearly remember a derogatory word that my mother used to refer to Mr. Rogers and what she thought of him.
As a young child, I couldn’t understand at all why anyone would not like Mr. Rogers. He spoke so calmly and so nicely. And, he had all of those great puppets and that wonderful place called the Land of Make Believe. I can’t say that I was a huge fan of Mr. Rogers when I was a child (I was drawn more to the faster pace of Sesame Street), but I remember watching that show, with my best friend across the street, and liking it. The tone of voice, the caring attitude, the sense that Mr. Rogers clearly loved children and seemed to want to reach out and actually sit with us in our living room—well, my friend’s living room—was all very appealing. Why was that neighborhood of Mr. Rogers not welcome in my house?
This question is particularly challenging as my parents were observant Christians, active in our local Congregational church. Mr. Rogers seemed to fit neatly into a Christian home, yet he was banished from mine. Our television was much more likely tuned to The Three Stooges, the slapstick comedy show that had nothing to do with thoughtfulness, gentleness or the consideration of complicated feelings.
As I look back, I’m aware that I grew up in a household where there was a suspicion directed at those who demonstrated not simply an obvious kindness, but more than that: an engaging openness to neighbors, strangers and the world. In more recent years, this suspicion has morphed into forwarded e-mails from one of my parents that praise the current President and his hostility to almost everyone who doesn’t look or act as he does.
I find myself wondering a great deal about this quagmire in which we find ourselves, on the local and national level, and the part of it where so many observant, church-going Christians seem so effortlessly to reject the many Gospel stories of Jesus demonstrating and highlighting the humanity of the marginalized, the stranger, the other. Instead of kindness and openness, there is caution, doubt and even hostility. How do/how should the faithful look upon the world, upon their own neighborhoods? Do the faithful allow their view to be shaped by their faith, or is their faith shaped by their view?
Mr. Rogers offered a vision, a path, and a direction, all deeply rooted in his Christian faith: “Love is at the root of everything—all learning, all relationships—love, or the lack of it.” Exactly. In this moment of reconsideration, amid the cardigans and sneakers, we—especially those of us who claim ourselves “Christian”—ought to spend time reflecting on love, or the lack of it, and how the love of Christ seeks to shape who we are, how we think and how we act, in this great big neighborhood in which we live.