Mr. Rogers Neighborhood went nationwide in 1968. Mr. Rogers became a part of the life of innumerable children and their parents. Fred Rogers was beloved by many. He was also frequently parodied and ridiculed for his calm and quiet demeanor in a medium that thrives on excitement. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? from Academy Award winning documentarian Morgan Neville is not so much a biography of Mr. Rogers, but an examination and celebration of the ideas that he tried to share to shape the culture and its values. Through archival footage and interviews with people close to him, the film reveals both the philosophy and the person behind those ideas.
It is not secret, but perhaps many people don’t know, that Fred Rogers was an ordained minister. The United Presbyterian Church ordained him as an evangelist to television. We see frequently in this film that he understood what he was doing as ministry and mission. His mission, he said, as “to make goodness attractive.” His approach to his children’s program was to try to speak to parents as well as children. His was a message of acceptance, trust, and encouragement. Although never preachy, his message was in many ways the best kind of sermon.
But the film also shows us that his message was not as simple as it is always portrayed. The film shows us a clip from 1968, the day after Robert Kennedy was killed. In that clip Daniel Striped Tiger asks, “What does assassination mean?” Not many shows aimed at children would tackle such problems. But Rogers knew that children were hearing all this news and it was scary. He also understood that parents probably felt ill-equipped to respond. Rogers respected children and their emotions. He was willing to give voice to the fear, anger, and pain that children may not have known how to speak. He modeled a way to hear and speak to children in difficult times. Other issues that Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood addressed—sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly—were racism, disabilities, divorce, and death.
It is only fair that I admit that I have long been a fan of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and look at Fred Rogers as one of my personal heroes. The show wasn’t on when I was a child, but I discovered it as an adult watching it with my son. To me, Fred Rogers exemplifies the word of Paul: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23a).
In recent years society has become divided and it seems to have lost any sense of civility. We demonize those who disagree with us. We dehumanize people from other countries or of different religions or sexual identity. We speak with anger and hatred. We could do worse than to hear Fred Rogers speaking to us as he did to a generation of children: I like you just the way you are. It is only by knowing that we are likable in and of ourselves that we will be able to see the others around us as likable as well. Fred Rogers recognized the truth that we are all children of God, that God loves each of us (and even that God likes each of us). He tried to teach us to like ourselves so that we could learn to like the people around us.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features