There has been a renaissance surrounding Mr Rogers of late. Tom Hanks is going to play Mr Rogers in the feature film, “You Are My Friend.” The documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” also opens this week.
Mr Rogers was not only an enduring, and well recognized children’s advocate, but also a man of faith who believed in his message, a rarity in this age of instant celebrity. One remarkable fact is that Rogers made a point of answering the almost 1 million pieces of mail personally that was sent to him. There was much more to Fred Rogers than a simple television personality. Not only was he an ordained Presbyterian Minister, Rogers was also a student of world religions and spoke Greek and Hebrew.
The man who used to ask, “Won’t you be my neighbor?" in each episode really did believe in his mission. He was a believer in being a good neighbor and he pulled from the biblical teachings where Jesus spoke of the type of neighbor that Christians should become. It also speaks to the larger questions in society, and the humanistic beliefs that extol us to look out for one another and care deeply about our neighbors, regardless of skin color or religion or political beliefs. |The widow of Rogers told the documentary makers not to make him ‘into a saint.’ She went on to add that ‘his mission was to tell us that we all struggle, and he doesn’t exist on another plane. He labored incredibly hard to fight for grace.”
Rogers story is even more powerful as we delve into his prescient vision about the power of media and the influence television had on children. According to his documentarian, Rogers envisioned television as a great tool for helping to build community, but he was also appalled by the exploitation he found in children’s programming. In this new in-depth look at Rogers’, his friend, Reverend George Wirth, also explained how Rogers was able to convey the message of Christian values without using the accepted language used in sermons.
We see and hear Rogers dealing with the difficult subjects through his show, and talking to children in voices they could understand. He talked about the Vietnam War on TV, and after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, he used the voice of a puppet to help children understand the tough subject, even going so far as defining the word “assassination.’
Rogers is a needed voice from the past that was able to understand the power of images and media, and how they powerfully affect children and invade the lives of children and adults. And yet he spoke optimistically, before Congress, about television giving us ‘the chance to make a real community out of the entire country’ This is something that has become even more of a remarkable wish rather than a prediction in the age of the internet that consumes us in the 21stCentury.
There are critics of Rogers who talked of the oft-repeated phrase he used, “I like you just the way you are.” Rogers addressed that once in a commencement speech, telling the audience that “What that means ultimately is you don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you.” This is something that Christians, and all people of faith may interpret as the idea of God’s grace at work in our lives.
One of the most prescient and forward -thinking points of Rogers’ contribution to not only children’s programming, but to the idea of using media to bring people together, comes from his own words as he tells viewers to ‘think of someone who has helped you.’ If you look for the helpers, you will see they outnumber those who are intent on doing bad things. That is sadly, a much- needed lesson that begs to be relayed time and again in an age of violence in schools and throughout the normally placid areas of our life that have become ‘soft targets’ for those intent on doing harm.
Fred Rogers was a man out of time, whose lessons are still reaching out to help us heal some of the broken places that we see in our own lives. Look for the documentary on PBS, as well as the feature film starring Tom Hanks as they portray this extraordinary, humble and quiet man of faith we knew as Mr Rogers.