This is definitely the year of Mister (Fred) Rogers. Everyone is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the premiere of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” First, there was a PBS special, then he got his own Forever stamp, a feature-length documentary has just been released in theaters, and next year Mr. America himself, Tom Hanks, is set to play Rogers in a major motion picture.
Last week I went to see the aforementioned new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Actually, it was my son who wanted to see it more than I did. Which is kind of funny because we both missed the period when Mister Rogers’ PBS TV series was on the air. I was just a little too old when it started in 1968 and Luke was just a little too young when it ended in 2001.
Yet, we both are in love with Mister Rogers. And his documentary reminds us why. Only the most hardened souls won’t find the need to grab a hankie at two or three (or more) points during the movie. Theaters should be required to hand out tissues. Kleenex should be a major sponsor.
As most people know, Mister Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister (and a life-long Republican). He wasn’t flashy or showy in his faith, but he clearly lived it out with conviction. In fact, he knew that his ministry was to be with children, specifically children who watched television.
David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times about a telling incident in Mr. Rogers life:
Once, as Tom Junod described in a profile for Esquire, Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him.
The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God and if Mister Rogers liked him he must be O.K.
Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked 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.”
Mister Rogers’ was a gentler, more genteel person who recognized that feelings didn't make you weak and that kindness showed strength of character. And…it was all rooted in a strong, profound Christian faith.
He also reminds us, like Jesus did, that children matter – not in a narcissistic way as some of Rogers’ critics (and he had some) claim. He didn’t say kids were perfect nor did he hand out ribbons to them because they listened nicely. He was convinced that children had a right to be heard and to grapple with difficult topics. He knew that at their young and tender age their brains were developing so rapidly that what they were learning right then and there would impact their entire lives. Take heed: your ministry with and to children is critical.
But what’s the takeaway for us hardened, wizened, and sometimes-cynical adults?
Take it from Mister Rogers himself:
“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”
Happy anniversary, Mister Rogers. We promise to work on being kind.
P.S. Remember when I was trying to learn how to fold a fitted sheet? Here's a video to show how it’s really supposed to be done. Enjoy.