Mister (Fred) Rogers died this week 14 years ago. The more time that passes since he left this world, the more I wish he were still here, still inviting us to the neighborhood.
The cover story I wrote for Christianity Today was the last major article written about him when he was still alive. It was the only major piece that highlighted his “theology of the neighborhood.” He was thrilled to see it. He repeatedly contacted me requesting more copies.
“We used to visit him in the country almost every Sunday. He was the kind of person who would say, ‘You know, you’ve made this a special day by being here.'”
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Rogers was known to become close to journalists who interviewed him. How could he not? When you were with him, he gently hijacked the interview and asked you the questions. He loved us “just the way we are,” even as journalists. He changed our lives.
During my visit with him so many years ago, I sat with him in his “office,” a small, cramped, eclectic room in Pittsburgh that was a testimony to the people who have “loved him into existence” (his way of putting it).
He sat on a well-worn couch and I in a velveteen chair. These were from his childhood home of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It was from this couch that he wrote letters to children and their mothers, and would think about things like “big” and “little.” (He had no desk.) He was flanked by stuffed animals and baseball caps, and sometimes stuffed animals wearing baseball caps, that his many neighbors had given him over the years.
He called his viewers “neighbors” because he understood the world as a place filled with neighbors. He called himself a neighbor. And his daily half-hour children’s program, then called “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” was his invitation for children to come to a safe place filled with quiet moments, like feeding the fish, and moving narratives — like Lady Elaine Fairchild sabotaging King Friday XIII in the Neighborhood of Make Believe. “Do you ever feel like Lady Elaine did?” he would ask his television neighbors. Then he would sing a song: “What do you do with the mad that you feel …?”
In his office, he showed me a sign that he kept on the table near the door: “Freddie, I like you just the way you are.”
“It was my Grandfather McFeely who said such things as that,” he said. “We used to visit him in the country almost every Sunday. He was the kind of person who would say, ‘You know, you’ve made this a special day by being here.'”
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What most people don’t realize about Mister Rogers and his Neighborhood is that behind the puppets, the tennis shoes, and the simple songs lay an abiding faith and weighty theology. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ordained Fred Rogers as “an evangelist to work with children and families through the mass media.”
He did not bring evangelism in its churchly sense to this calling, and neither did he introduce religious themes in his programs. But his daily neighborhood visits with children would sow seeds that awoke something elemental in their hearts. It took the form of hidden growth, like the parable of the seeds sown in secret.
He opened his wallet to show me pictures. “I love to know about people,” he said. The “tour through the wallet” included photographs of people he’d known, children of the people he’d known, and in some instances, people he didn’t know but heard about and cared about:
“Did you know Henri Nouwen? Here he is with Chris de Vinck,” he said, explaining that Chris de Vinck was compiling a book of essays about Henri Nouwen. “These are Chris de Vinck’s children.”
“This is one of my special friends, Yo-Yo Ma, who is a cellist, and his son,” he said. “He’s a great man. Oh. This is Jonathan Kozol — he writes about children.” There was a picture of Mother Martha and “some of the kids in the Bronx”; a little boy from his church; and another boy with autism who was fixated on hangers. There was a picture of a woman whose husband “was sucked into coal slag and suffocated”; and there was a picture of her two children.
“Oh.” He paused. “That’s what I was looking for: Here is Dr. Orr, and Mrs. Orr. She’s still living.”
He told me that in seminary, he studied systematic theology with Dr. William S. Orr and that he took everything he offered. “He was a great influence on many of our lives. Not just because he was brilliant. He was the kind of person who would go out on a winter’s day for lunch and come back without his overcoat.”
Rogers went on: “Every Sunday, my wife and I used to go to the nursing home to visit him. One Sunday we had just sung ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ and I was full of this one verse. I said, ‘Dr. Orr, we just sang this hymn and I’ve got to ask you about part of it. You know where it says, ‘The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. For, lo, his doom is sure … one little word will fell him?’ Dr. Orr, what is that one thing that would wipe out evil?'”
“Oh, let me take your picture,” he says. “I love taking pictures of people.”
“And he said, ‘Evil simply disintegrates in the presence of forgiveness. When you look with accusing eyes at your neighbor, that is what evil would want, because the more the Accuser’ — which, of course, is the word Satan in Hebrew — ‘can spread the accusing spirit, the greater evil spreads.’ Dr. Orr also said, ‘On the other hand, if you can look with the eyes of the Advocate on your neighbor, those are the eyes of Jesus.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”
Rogers also told me, “Sometimes evil is almost palpable and we see it trying to make people sad and mad and distrustful. I think the Accuser would have us be so despairing that we wouldn’t do anything good at all. But you know the effect of one little candlelight in great darkness. That sounds simple, but it’s true.”
Before my day with Mister Rogers came to an end, I asked if I could take his picture.
“Oh, let me take your picture,” he said. “I love taking pictures of people.”
I sit on his couch with the illustration of X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat in the background and Fred Rogers took my picture. Then “Mr. McFeely” (David Newell) took our picture together — Mister Rogers and me, together on his couch, X the Owl over our shoulders, sitting, smiling and safe, together, as neighbors.