Fred Rogers made a deliberate choice to live his life loving and caring for others. His faith led him to see Creation with profound humility, and to treat people with the respect that God’s image bearers deserve. At the same time, he’d never be so crass as to try to shoehorn in his faith as part of the “deal” of being near him. He treated people with dignity, respect, and compassion–simply because they were people. His goal in making his show was to provide a way for children to express their feelings through constructive outlets. I would say he also wanted to remind adults that children possess the full gamut of feelings they experience. His story, and the way he treated people, touches me. It reminds me being a neighbor may be one of the most important tasks I ever undertake.
One of the mosts sobering scenes in the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, is when it discusses the promotional pieces he filmed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. During the shoot he was visibly distraught, and when his producer asked him what was wrong he replied, “I just don’t know what good these are going to do.” Mr. Rogers, a man who’d make a life-choice to see everyone as a neighbor, was shaken by acts which showed just how much some people rejected that idea.
In the documentary, around 1 hour and 23 minutes in, they show some footage of Mr. Rogers preparing himself to record the next spot. He was visibly distraught, and fiddled with the piano at which he was seated to steady himself. He then turned to the camera and said, “I’m ready.” His message that followed this moment of deep pause was a call for all people to be, saying the phrase first in Hebrew, “repairers of Creation.”
What a message. We still need to heed that call.
Violence and hate crimes are on the increase. Corruption in government has reached a point where few even seem to attempt to hide their contempt for altruism. Sectarianism is growing, and more and more people are beginning to feel justified in speaking of “the other” in ways which mark them as not even human. These problems have always existed, of course, but at present they appear to be whipping up into a firestorm.
And there in the midst of all this is Fred Rogers’ open hand, posing as a question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
The answer I hear back, more and more and more, is, “No! How dare you even ask such a thing!” It seems people aren’t looking for ways to make neighbors anymore, they are looking for permission to hate their enemies.
And faced with this hate that is poisoning our neighborhoods 2 it leads me to ponder my vocation and wonder, right alongside Mr. Rogers, “I just don’t know if this is going to do any good.” What good can the commands of a crucified savior, who said things like, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” when the world seems to be tuned to a different channel altogether?
But it’s in times like these when hope needs to be held. Because, despite what the furies of our age want people to believe, the Way of the Neighbor is not weak. Nor can it be overcome without great difficulty. The more people hold on to their neighbors, that is all people 3, with love and charity the less power the furies of our age have.
Right now I feel like Fred Rogers filming those promotional pieces. I’m standing in front of a storm which is sucking away breath and casting my words into oblivion through the sheer power of noise. I feel small, feeble, and have genuine fear for our future. But there’s still the open hand, posing as a question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” That hand can be smacked away, but I’ll still offer it. It can be mocked as valueless, but I’ll still pose the question. Because, in the face of the storm, it’s more important than ever.
I don’t want to do this. I’m a natural introvert, and general empath, and what I want to do is crawl up into a corner and tell the world to go away. My faith compels me to do this, whether it does “any good” or not. Love compels me to dare, to live, to write, to speak out, and to offer the open hand posed as a question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” And should the storm fall on us with all the furies of this world unleashed to destroy all they touch, love will remain.
Won’t you be my neighbor?