There is no one in my generation who does not have the tune to “Won’t You Be My
Neighbor?” embedded into the fiber of their childhoods. As a
child, I did not realize how much influence Mr. Rogers
had on me. I was always more partial to Sesame
Street, with its multi-colored, lovable muppets and its random
forays into exotic worlds where children lead llamas around cities,
and everyone counts everything that they encounter.
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was something I watched because it was
on after Sesame Street. I was too young to change the
channel. Nevertheless, as I look back on my childhood, I realize how
many subtle lessons came to me via the man in the comfortable shoes
and the cardigan. He was the soothing voice,
the one who could be counted on to be straightforward and rational. He
was honest when he spoke to me and I respected that.
So many people talk down to children. He talked directly to us.
Granted, Sesame Street was probably more helpful in endowing me with
academic skills like spelling, basic arithmetic, and learning how to
say random things in
Spanish. But Mr. Rogers knew how to tap into a child’s creative
side. Every day was a trip into the land of make-believe where puppets
acted much the same as the vast community of stuffed animals that
resided on and around my bed. It was fun to know that others were
imagining with me, and that there really could be whole other worlds
around us that only the creative could see.
Mr. Rogers did not have an absolute message to instill in our heads
like other programs did. Oh, sure, he had lots of helpful things to
say and lots of friendly advice. He was always willing to show us how
to tie our shoes or remind us that we didn’t have to worry about being
sucked down the drain when we take a bath. But the real content of the
show was emotional. Mr. Rogers made us feel like there was something
special about each and every one of us as individuals. He made us
appreciate our own unique personhood.
Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. Not much is made
of that aspect of his life. I wonder about it now as I walk my own
path towards a calling to the ordained life. I have assumed that at
least part of my life as a priest will involve parish ministry, the
role that most people associate with clergy.
But Fred Rogers proves that ministry can involve many things and many
paths. His program was not explicitly Christian in content, nor could
it be viewed as inaccessible to children of other faiths. Yet many of
the best Christian values shine through. He celebrated life, love,
charity, humility, thoughtfulness, peace, and dignity.
He brought his message to the people who Jesus found among the most
compelling, the ones who our society constantly talks about and never
talks to, the children. His was a wonderfully outside-of-the-box
ministry. I hope and pray that I have gathered some of that creativity
to use in my own ministry some day.
Mr. Rogers’ time in television and in this world was finite. While
other brilliant shows like Sesame Street have the potential to
go on indefinitely so long as there are people willing to dress as a
giant canary, Mr. Rogers himself was the lifeblood of his program. I
am saddened to think that so many children now are growing up not even
aware that he existed.
Yet I am also given to a vague notion of pride that I am among the
adults who can claim to have grown up with Mr. Rogers. Those of us who
grew up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s are bonded by his
common influence upon us. He is ours just as we are his. And as we
grow older and have children of our own, we will carry on his legacy
every time we say to them, “We love you just the way you are.”