The grace and hope of 'Won’t You Be My Neighbor?'

July 12th, 2018

As the weather this summer heats up around the United States, many of us find ourselves seeking refuge from the oppressive warmth and humidity in the cool comfort of the movie theater. In addition to the blockbusters and family-friendly offerings that usually grace the summer screens, this year everyone seems to be talking about a documentary. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? examines the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, ordained Presbyterian minister and host of the popular children’s television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Like many children, I grew up on a steady diet of public television, with shows like “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” so the nostalgia factor for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is high. But the movie offers something else besides nostalgia; it offers hope and grace.

In the era of #MeToo and the fall of so many previously celebrated public figures, it’s hard not to enter the movie with the question, “Was Fred Rogers really who he was on-screen?” I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, despite even his own son’s admission that it was challenging to live with someone many consider to be a saint. Like many saints, a sense of melancholy pervades footage of and interviews with Fred Rogers. We see him grappling with whether his work, this thing he has committed his life to, really makes any difference in the face of splashier, goofier, and more violent children’s television offerings. Notably, the movie shows him passionately wondering what these other shows are teaching children about human dignity, perhaps his utmost concern.

By the time the credits rolled at the showing I attended at a local independent theater, there was audible sniffling from all corners of the room. The moments where Mister Rogers calmly but directly addressed traumatic news events like the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the Challenger explosion, and September 11, 2001 were particularly remarkable. He did not shy away from anger, fear, or hurt but helped many of us learn how to identify and talk about these feelings with trusted people in our lives.

Given the current state of our national cultural and political discourse, at times the documentary felt like a relic from another era — a slower, simpler, and less controversial time — even as Mister Rogers did not shy away from politics in his own way. His unrelenting kindness and gentleness almost reads as a kind of naïveté in today’s climate. And yet, people are flocking to the movie theaters for a reminder of that special blend in Fred Rogers’ character.

While never speaking directly of the divine, Mister Rogers’ lesson to all of us that we are special and loved just the way we are is a fundamental Christian teaching and a lesson about the grace and love that God offers us. Contrasted with a culture that is always telling us to do more and be more in order to “deserve” love, dignity, or respect, it is a timely reminder for all of us, adult and child alike.

Nostalgia might have been my motivating force for watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but I left with renewed hope and encouragement for my own ministry. Fred Rogers’ life and ministry brought to mind several passages from Scripture, including Jesus’ own admonition to the disciples to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” Fred Rogers was both of the entertainment world and set apart from it, offering a product and a message that he believed in as a human and a Christian. Being counter-cultural was sometimes a lonely and difficult path, as it is for many of us engaged in ministry. But if Fred Rogers was indeed a modern-day saint, then, as the hymn goes, I mean to be one, too.

comments powered by Disqus