The Radical Gospel of Jesus, and Mr. Rogers

A few times in the new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” it’s mentioned that through his life, Fred Rogers always lived the merciful Christianity that shaped him from his childhood. Still, there is no hard religious focus in the film and one could watch the movie and conclude it’s simply a secular story.

But an authentic gospel message often has little to do with vestments and pews and hymns. Transforming gospel grace happens despite ritual and religion. When a messenger of single-hearted goodness proclaims Good News, the living word grabs hold of your heart and you know something is changing. You want to be the goodness you have received.

Such is my take on one of the most moving films I have ever seen. I did not pay attention to Mr. Rogers when I first heard his voice in our living room. I was 14 in 1968 when the show started. But with 4 younger siblings, there was always a desire from them to turn on the program. I heard his voice. I occasionally glimpsed. But, in my teenage sophistication, I thought Mr. Roger’s was a jerk.

My first real interaction with him happened in 1998. The Dalai Lama was scheduled to speak near Erie, Pennsylvania and my friend Tom, a professor at Mercyhurst University, had gotten me a ticket to attend the event. It was a packed house and the air was charged with a potent energy as we anticipated the appearance of the great, holy and revered, exiled leader from the sacred land of Tibet.

To my surprise, someone came center stage to announce the person who would be introducing the Dalai Lama. “Please join with me in welcoming Mr. Fred Rogers!” “Mr. Rogers?, I remember thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” “This has got to be a joke.”

When Mr. Rogers took the microphone, I slumped in my seat. He spoke as he always speaks: deliberate, clear, a slow pace, lacking any emotional inflection. Something about his delivery though—I found myself actually listening. And the more I listened, the more I impressed I was by his authentic goodness. In fact, I would later say that I was far more impacted that day by what Mr. Roger, than what the Dalai Lama had to say.

One thing I remember vividly– Mr. Rogers talked about the first time he heard the Dalai Lama. He was in a hotel room in Washington, D.C, watching a television interview with the Dalai Lama. Mr. Rogers recalled the Dalai Lama saying, “Never let anyone’s actions determine your reaction.” He repeated the line, even more precisely. Pausing, Mr. Roger’s then said, “I have never forgotten those words.”  And neither have I.  Mr. Roger’s added, “Always, I try to live by those words.”  So do I.

A messenger of single-hearted goodness speaks words that grab hold of your heart, words that change you. You want to be the goodness you have received.
A New York Times Op-Ed about the Mr. Rogers documentary (“Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good,” David Brook, New York Times, July 5, 2018), says, “Often people are moved to tears by sadness, but occasionally people are moved to tears by goodness.” But that indeed is what happens in this documentary.

Another reviewer commented “tears are OK, in fact tears are good.”  So yes, I thought I might get teary-eyed watching the documentary.  But I never expected to cry so wholeheartedly.  And while I did my best to not let out any sounds during my profuse weeping, the community of elders with whom I watched the film became my saving grace.  They too were crying as well.

David Brook describes what happens. “The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be. Moral elevation gains strength when it is scarce.”

Brook describes a Mr. Rogers episode in which Mr. Rogers meets with a 14 year old boy whose cerebral palsy occasionally leaves him unable to walk or talk. When Mr. Rogers asks the boy to pray for him, the result is exhilarating. While the boy has often been told how others are praying for him, no one has ever asked him for his prayers. “Mister Rogers must be close to God,” the boy realizes. “So, if Mr. Rogers wants my prayers…Wow!”  The boy is exuberant. Indeed, this is Gospel, alive and transforming.

Later, when a journalist compliments Mr. Rogers for the clever way he boosted the boy’s self-esteem, Mr. Rogers is quick to clarify. “I truly want his prayers for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.” (“Can you say…hero?” Esquire, Tom Junod, 4/6/2017).

Ultimately, David Brook provides the real theology behind this parable, “Here is the radicalism that infused that show: the child is closer to God than the adult; the sick are closer than the healthy; the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.” I’ve yet to read a summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ as succinct and spot-on as what Brook has written.

Still, what Brook has written is an account of the way that Mr. Rogers saw, lived, and impacted our world.
Of course, Mr. Rogers’ “everything” results from his authentic understanding of Jesus and the way each of us is called to “follow him.”

A segment in the film has Mr. Rogers explaining the title of the documentary, the familiar words he sings at the beginning of each television episode. “Its an invitation,” Mr. Rogers tells us, “an invitation for somebody to be close to you. The greatest thing we can do is help somebody know that they’re loved.”

I feel this article is already too long. In this forum, words can point. But in the final reckoning, words fail. A better me knows it’s time to go out and meet people, perhaps, find a neighbor.

The film ends with a number of folks reflecting upon words Mr. Rogers asks each of us—“I want you to spend one minute reflecting about someone in your life who really believed in you, who helped you in some important way, someone to whom you would like to say, Thank you.

Slowly, the camera records the responses of many of the people in the film, those who shared the Mr. Rogers story throughout the documentary.  A few answer, “My Mom.”  Close to tears, a few answer, “Mr. Rogers.”  The last three faces we see are Fred Rogers’ family, his two sons, then his wife.

The camera pauses as each son, James and John, thoughtfully look directly at us. But neither responds.  Finally, the camera brings us face to face with Joanne, Fred’s beloved widow. One can sense she is thinking, as if she’s reviewing a long list of names that she would like to honor.  As she is about to give her answer, my guess is that all of us in the theatre assumed we knew whom she would name.

But I won’t spoil the ending.  It’s worth the price of a ticket to watch her face. With an ever widening smile and eyes beaming a love that Mr. Rogers surely knew so well, she graciously announces two final words.

A grown man had come to see this movie. But in the end, it was a little boy leaving the theatre, crying tears of great joy.

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