Today, we celebrate the birthday of an extraordinary man.
Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame) passed away in 2003. He would have been 88 years old today. He offered his life to the world and in the process has borne much fruit in the lives of countless children—and adults—across the generations.
When I recall Fred Rogers’ effect on my childhood, I can only give thanks for the presence of the always endearing, always trusting “sweater man”. He opened up my mind to a whole world of creativity and imagination, and he emanated a certain warmth that afforded me a welcome respite from the noisy and violent cartoons that pervaded the American early childhood experience. My mother would often sing his classic self-composed tunes such as “It’s Such a Good Feeling” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?“. Mister Rogers’ presence was a tangible grace of my childhood.
Over the past few months, I have taken a closer look at this great man’s life.
Through this second examination, I have come to realize his life’s gift in a more meaningful way. As many are unaware, he was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) as “an evangelist to work with children and families through the mass media”. It has become evident to me that Fred Rogers was more than just a benevolent character on a children’s show; he was an ordinary person, motivated by his faith, to sacrifice (literally sacer + faciō, ‘to make holy‘) his talents, gifts, and perhaps his very life for the sake of the common good. Simply put, Fred Rogers was a saint.
In his own words:
Everybody longs to be loved and longs to know that he or she is capable of loving.
This was his simple mission: to let children know that they are loved into existence. In the midst of an often cruel and abusive world, he wanted to let children know that they were loved first by God. Before any of us were hurt or rejected by our friends, teachers, loved ones, or even parents: we were loved and accepted by God. Before there was distrust, there was trust. Before we were strangers, we were neighbors.
Fred was steadfast in a consistent daily routine centered around the act of self-giving:
Waking up at 5; praying for a few hours for all of his friends and family; studying; writing, making calls and reaching out to every fan who took the time to write him; going for a morning swim; getting on a scale; then really starting his day.
He fought tirelessly on behalf of this mission, often butting heads with a pervasive culture of greed and suspicion that wished to distort his message. For instance, Burger King once used a look-alike ‘Mr. Rodney’ character in an advertising campaign in 1984. Fred Rogers promptly called for an end to their commercial, insisting that “[having] someone who looks like me doing a commercial is very confusing for children”. Nowadays, it is commonplace for each and every children’s character to end up in a Happy Meal bag or on the shelf at the nearest Walmart. But Fred Rogers had a vision that left no room for corruption.
Through even my brief experience of living in the central city, I have become painfully aware that it is often not easy to cheerfully declare that “it’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood”. Nonetheless, in order for a just society to be called forth, we must operate under the basic principle of trust. We must have faith that beneath all of the lies and misfortunes that seem to define us, we all possess neighborly hearts that deserve to be trusted. It is only through this act of trust that healing can be achieved and neighborliness can be restored. Too often, we try to exclude people from our neighborhood, like the lawyer in Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:27-29):
And he answered, “You shall love the lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And He said to him, “you have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”