Van Ens: Do we reside in ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’? (column)
Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers wrote, produced and hosted “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for more than 30 years. He befriended children, helping them gain skills to cope with anger, fear and feeling timid.
Rogers caught the spirit of 18th century Methodist founder John Wesley. Wesley pushed boundaries on what qualified as a sanctuary where God is worshiped. He ventured outside church edifices into fields where this evangelist preached to thousands. A woman was so impressed with Wesley’s picture of Jesus, she exclaimed, “Where is your church located? I want to visit it and hear you again speak of your friend Jesus.”
“The world is my parish!” Wesley exclaimed.
Fred Rogers treated a TV studio as his sanctuary, where he cared for children as his parishioners. His creative endeavors shunned ministerial conventions, such as wearing a robe or speaking form a pulpit.
“He never had a church. He had TV (as his mission field),” Margaret Witmer, who worked with Rogers when he first aired his program in the early 1960s, said in a documentary.
His vision for effective ministry reached beyond traditional ministerial boundaries, cultivating children’s minds-in-the-making. With a low-keyed demeanor, Rogers dramatized a panoramic vision for teaching Jesus’ values of humility, graciousness and courage in a frightening world. He welcomed make-believe in which puppets, whose voices sounded much like Mr. Rogers’, showed kids how to pick themselves up after stumbling.
Fred Rogers didn’t fall into his TV house by luck. He entered this neighborhood by studying music composition in college. He learned dynamics of youngster’s hopes and fears from child psychologist Margaret McFarland at the University of Pittsburgh.
Like Jesus, he never ministered in a conventional church. His vision of ministry was broader, deeper and inclusive, appealing to young viewers. Even “Saturday Night Live” got into his act with comedian Eddie Murphy mimicking and spoofing him.
Fred rarely used words with double meanings because young children take literally what we say. Eddie Murphy — wink, wink — used spicy, naughty language for a jaded adult audience.
The Postal Service will issue a commemorative stamp on Friday, March 23. It features Mr. Rogers flanked by a puppet, King Friday XIII, who built walls to keep life from changing. Rogers, in contrast, built bridges of understanding.
His persona is rare on TV now. We watch reality stars who hype themselves. Rogers didn’t yank tykes out of their seats because of his dramatic tone. Rather, his authentic, shy spirit left children sunk into secure, toasty beanbag seats where they felt listened to and respected.
In the Mr. Rogers’ documentary, his colleague Margaret Witmer remarked, “We have a director who once said to me, ‘if you take all the elements that make good television, and do exactly the opposite, you have ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ Low production values, simple sets, an unlikely star — yet it worked because he was saying something important.”
John Adams complimented Thomas Jefferson for cultivating a “felicity of expression.” This antique phrase suggests using inspiring words that are gentle and comforting, which bestow strength when we feel threatened.
Mr. Rogers spoke a lot like Jesus, who spun stories, a total of 39 parables in the Gospels. These stories reveal how God’s strength helps us cope when life isn’t welcoming.
Be my neighbor, asked Mr. Rogers. “Would you be mine?” With grace, humility and strength, would that more of us return to his neighborhood where Jesus resides.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.