The Radical Gospel of Mr. Rogers

If you are one of the millions of people who grew up with Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, you know what an extraordinary person Fred Rogers was. As America’s favorite neighbor, Mr. Rogers created a world where it was ok to be different, angry, sad, or quiet. Whether you were in a wheelchair, sang opera, or were kind of a witch (I’m looking at you, Lady Elaine Fairchild), there was room for you in the neighborhood. For these and so many other reasons, Fred is my hero.

I never met Mr. Rogers (but don’t we all feel like we have?!), but what he taught me changed how I see the world. Mr. Rogers found something to love in everyone. He looked at each person as a treasure, and interacting with them as a gift. He somehow saw the best in everyone–perhaps especially those who were different or who many might find unlovable.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, where Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed, and for several years I worked in Mr. Rogers’ WQED studio. He is the (unofficial) patron saint of Pittsburgh, and working in that studio was a very special thing indeed. Walking down the hall I saw King Friday’s castle and Daniel Tiger’s treehouse. Those darn puppets are a great reminder that the best neighborhoods are inclusive to everyone.

Many know that Fred was an ordained minister and while he never discussed religion on his show, his strong moral compass was evident. Through his example, he demonstrated exceptional kindness. He didn’t just “tolerate” people as we’re so often encouraged to do with those who are different from us. He liked them–just the way they were. That’s a radical idea that shouldn’t be radical.

I recently read the Esquire magazine issue featuring him on the cover was the worst-selling issue of editor David Granger’s career.  I guess I’m not exactly Esquire’s target audience, but it was the first issue I ever bought–and I have subscribed ever since. I guess my fanaticism for children’s television icons isn’t shared by many. (cont’d below)

 

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As I went on to study religion and work in media, I continued to be inspired by Mr. Rogers’ generosity and unbridled love. His sincerity and patience moves me even more now in the digital age. While Fred is no longer with us, I think he would be saddened that so many folks are using “us vs. them” rhetoric, trolling each other online, and creating an atmosphere where different (whatever that is!) is bad.

Working at WQED, people would often share stories about Fred or what is was like filming the show. They recalled how Fred was quick to laugh, thoughtful about the show’s production, and devoted to his viewers. The last time I was there his office was still in tact, just as he left it. Just like his office, his reputation is still in tact too. Reputation isn’t a strong enough word for what he created. It’s a legacy. One I’d like to think lives somewhere deep inside every person who watched his show.

Perhaps the election cycle is inspiring me to think more about the power of radical love. I, like most people, am not very good at implementing this theoretically wonderful sentiment, but Fred reminds me that it can be done. He was always asking what more he could give, and he offered kindness to the people society sees as the least among us. And his kind of generosity didn’t require money; it was as simple as being a good listener. I don’t do that enough.

Despite being a scholar of religion, I often get frustrated with doctrine and dogma, and then I think about Fred. He made it so simple. Be radically kind. Ok, I said simple, not easy. It’s hard to be kind especially to those who seem undeserving. For that reason, Fred Rogers is my hero. Even if his “hero” issue of Esquire tanked, I read it, and it reminded me why his way of life is the blueprint. We can do better.

Mr. Rogers saw the best in others and loved them despite their flaws–even Lady Elaine Fairchild.

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