Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Sometimes, the world seems to be lacking in basic human kindness.

The news seems to be full of vitriol and social media just amplifies it. It has been so easy for me to get so wrapped up in the negative aspects of my life--a car wreck, death, and work frustration--that I lose sight of those things that bring me joy.

I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor to take a break from reruns of Mad Men and it proved to be the breath of fresh air that I needed.

Like many Gen X’ers and Millenials, I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. My daughter watches the spin-off Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Phrases like “I like you just the way you are” and “There are many ways to say ‘I love you’” are commonplace in my home and in my career as a teacher. Fred Rogers has been an important part of my journey as a parent, but I had no idea that he would be important to the maturity of my faith. 

In my early twenties, I would break up the monotony of working on a Master’s thesis with reruns of Mister Rogers. I knew that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but I never paid attention to the Christian messages in his show, especially during that time in my life.

Now as a practicing, adult Catholic, I can see that his faith infiltrated every moment of his show. His show was his ministry, and he used his platform to show parents and children the Christian values of kindness and justice. Some children’s shows avoid difficult subjects like events in the news or death, but Fred Rogers always tackled them head-on. This wasn’t because he believed that children should grow up before their time, he simply saw the intrinsic value of children. He understood that children listen to everything we say and internalize it, so he spoke to them in a way that would help them make sense of the world.

Jesus saw the value of children and told his Disciples to allow children to come to him to be blessed because they would inherit the Kingdom of God. Our children are our future, and Fred Rogers understood that. By treating millions of children as the valuable gifts of God that they truly are, he was leading them--leading us--to live in a Christ-like manner. 

The fact that the Catholic Church places a high value on social justice is one of the things that drew me back home. Over the course of the last year, I have seen the good works that people have been doing in our parish and it fills me with deep joy.

The Catholic Church defends everyone from the unborn to the homeless, answering the call of Isaiah 1:17 “Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.” Won’t You Be My Neighbor explores the ways that Fred Rogers used his platform to show the Christian value of justice. For example, in one episode from 1969, Fred Rogers soaked his feet in a pool with Francois Clemmons--an African American man. In 2018 it seems like such an innocuous moment of two friends cooling off in a kiddie pool, but in 1969 it was subversive.

Wasn’t Jesus subversive? Didn’t Jesus dare to heal lepers and befriend tax collectors? Didn’t Jesus overturn a money changer’s table? Not only did Fred Rogers share a pool with a black man, but when they were done he knelt down and dried Francois Clemmons’s feet. When I learned this, I recalled the scene from John 13:15-17 where Jesus washed the feet of his Disciples and told them “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” This act was completely intentional and showed his audience that to be a Christian meant being willing to do the right thing, even when it was unpopular. 

I can’t recommend Won’t You Be My Neighbor enough, especially to Catholic audiences. I felt connected with the man that I used to watch on TV in an entirely new light. I don’t know if the movie was intended to be a tool of evangelization but it certainly rejuvenated my faith and I found myself wanting to be a better Christian.

That same Sunday I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor, one of the readings was from the Letter of St. James: “ But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (3:17). Those words truly reflect the message of that television show. Fred Rogers used his talents as a way to glorify God and in doing so, taught three generations of children that they are valuable simply because God made them.

So many people don’t see themselves as intrinsically valuable and end up trying to ease that pain by turning away from God. A few years ago, a friend of mine asked me if I was being the person Mr. Rogers knew I could be and that always stuck with me. Now I realize that being the person that Mr. Rogers knew I could be means that I have to live the life that God has called me to live. Thank you all for being my neighbor.