My wife, Roberta, wanted to see the new documentary about Mr. Rogers on her birthday on Sunday afternoon: "Won't You Be My Neighbor?". (This says a lot about her, and about why I adore her.) She loved it. But she was both charmed and mystified that I wept almost all the way through the film. She wondered if it brought up something painful for me. "No, no," I answered. "I just want to be like Mr Rogers when I grow up."
The film overwhelmed my emotions with the power of love to open hearts and connect people to each other. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian pastor who channeled his "urge to clerge" into his long-running masterwork of television, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood". He was a progressive Christian before many folks used that term to describe a faith that is defined by practice rather than doctrine, a religion that is expressed in deeds much more than in creeds. When he shared a kiddie-pool to cool his white feet with the black feet of Officer Clemmons, he modeled the kind of racial harmony that the children - and adults - of the country needed to see and emulate at the time. For Christians, that image was lifted straight out of the New Testament story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet at the Last Supper. For those who didn't make the biblical connection, the message that mattered was just as clear.
The title of the children's show was just as biblical. "Who is my neighbor?" the lawyer asked, leading Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Every kid in America was neighbor to every other when they entered into Mr. Rogers' realm. As Jesus modeled compassion through fictional stories, and through his own practice, so did the show. The funky sets of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood were part of the magic. The un-slick production made room for children to use their imaginations. Jesus didn't use fancy props, either, yet his stories animate our moral imaginations two thousand years later. Every episode culminated in Fred Rogers, wearing a fuzzy sweater, looking the kids straight in the eyes and treating them as equals. As people to be taken seriously. As people capable of dealing with life's hard issues. "Childhood is not all clowns and balloons," he said. Kids let him in to their world because he left his ego, such as it was, at the door with his leather shoes. He was not an entertainer. Nor was he a preacher, nor a teacher. He was a non-anxious pastoral presence who invited children - and adults - to look within and face their feelings together. And as the film reveals, he was the same humble presence off-camera. A man of the cloth, cut from whole cloth.
He was a contemplative, mindful Christian who treasured silence, and he practiced it on a medium that otherwise abhorred it. He judiciously used "dead air" in his show to let kids form their thoughts, drawing out more about what they were feeling and thinking. He gave children the precious gift of quiet, focused attention - the refined essence of love.
Fred Rogers was on a mission to reverse the coarsening of American culture. And the film could not have come out at a more appropriate time, given his commitments. We can only imagine how he would talk to children today about the crude lies emanating from the White House. But we can be sure that he'd show a gentle but honest reflection of this reality, along with a positive way to respond.
I came out of the theater resolved to be a nicer, kinder, more patient, less reactive, more meditative person. WWMRD? - what would Mr. Rogers do? Years after his passing, it's still a question worth asking.....