Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Mister Rogers & the Kingdom of God

Week 1: Who Is My Neighbor?

September 9, 2018

Luke 10:25-37


How many of you grew up watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood, or watched it with your children or grandchildren?

Have any of you never seen Mister Rogers Neighborhood?

Do any of you think you are more familiar with the parodies of Mister Rogers done by comedians like Eddie Murphy than you are with the actual Mister Rogers?

Mister Rogers was—and still remains—a cultural icon.

Fred Rogers died in 2003 but he is still with us through the magic of television…and because many of us recognize the deep wisdom of what he said and did for our lives and our world today.

For example, after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, a quote from Fred Rogers–“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”—went viral on social media (click here). Every time there is another large scale, violent and troubling event, that same quote goes around again. Because it is a hopeful, caring word in the face of tragedy. (Even though it is ostensibly for children, the quote is very much helpful for adults, too, yes?)

February 19, 2018 was the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. In honor of that,

  • PBS produced an hour long special, “It’s You I Like”.
  • the US Postal Service released a postage stamp back in March featuring Mister Rogers—holding the King Friday XIII puppet—and it promptly sold out.
  • The documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was released in June and was shown in theaters across the country.
  • And a biography of Rogers, The Good Neighbor, was just published last week.

It’s been fifteen years since Fred Rogers died, seventeen years since the last Mister Rogers Neighborhood was broadcast.

But Fred Rogers is enjoying a resurgence in popularity right now and I think it is because we recognize that our nation is in deep need of what he offered us, not just on his show, but in his daily living—kindness; caring; welcoming, including and appreciating others who are different from us; being present to one another; listening carefully to others; understanding ourselves as loved and unique and needed.

Fred Rogers was ordained as a Presbyterian minister to a ministry with children and parents through the media. Every day as he walked into the studio, he would pray, “Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours.”

Over the next four Sundays, we’ll be talking together about how some of the main ideas that Fred Rogers communicated are also some of the main ideas of the Christian faith.

Because the more I think about it, the more I believe that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is what Fred Rogers believed the Kingdom of God is intended to be like—a place of kindness, caring, and acceptance.

One of the critical questions about the Kingdom of God is, who is part of God’s kingdom? Who is welcome?

The Bible explores this question in the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the parable as a response to another question, “Who Is My Neighbor?” After confirming with Jesus that the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, being, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself, the legal expert who asked in the first place wanted to clarify, “Just who exactly qualifies as the neighbor I am supposed to love?”

Jesus chooses to answer the question with the parable we just read, which seems to imply that everybody is our neighbor, even the people we least expect—especially the people we least expect.

Fred Rogers knew this parable, and in his neighborhood, he, too, answered the question of “Who is my neighbor?” by including…everybody.

If you’re not familiar with the show, each episode begins with Mister Rogers opening the front door of a house, and changing out of a suit jacket and dress shoes into a cardigan sweater and sneakers. He spends time talking with his “television friend” about some object he’s brought along—like a musical instrument or a picture. He also has visitors stop by, or makes visits to local businesses “in the neighborhood.” The program sought to help young children understand and experience the world around them.

In 1968, during that first season of production on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, James Earl Ray murdered Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. There were riots and uprisings in black neighborhoods all across the country. In response to the televised images of white police officers confronting and sometimes beating young black men and women, Fred Rogers decided to introduce a new character to the neighborhood: Officer Clemmons.[1]

Officer Clemmons was played by Francois Clemmons, a young black man who was the tenor soloist in the same choir in which Fred’s wife, Joanne, sang alto. Fred loved Francois’s voice, attended all his concerts and pursued his friendship. And then he pitched the idea of Officer Clemmons.

Francois resisted the idea for a long time. He grew up in the “ghetto” (his words) of Youngstown, Ohio, and his experience of the police was entirely negative. But Fred talked him into it—it was important for black children to have a positive image of a police officer, and for white children to see a black man in a trusted position of authority.

In the second season, Fred wrote a scene in which Officer Clemmons joined him in soaking his bare feet in a kiddie pool. The two men, one black and one white, sharing a pool and a towel to dry their feet afterwards showed an alternative to the violence seen surrounding efforts at integration, particularly integration of public pools.


There are other highlights of quietly revolutionary neighbors:

In 1987, back when the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union was beginning to thaw, Fred Rogers and Daniel Striped Tiger arrived in Moscow to visit his counterpart Tatyana Vedeneyeva, host of Spokoinoi Nochi (Good Night, Little Ones). At one point he sings “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in Russian (click here). Two months later, when Tatyana visited the US, they talked about the many ways in which they are alike and not so different.[2] Quietly building bridges and tearing down walls.

Perhaps one of the most memorable visits to the neighborhood was from 10 year old Jeff Erlanger, who arrived in his electric wheelchair, showing how it worked and talking easily and openly about his disabilities and why he used the chair (click here). Fred Rogers sat on his porch steps so he could be at eye level with Jeff and their interaction is touching and genuine. It aired in 1981, a time before schools had been mainstreamed and differently abled children were in separate classrooms, if not separate buildings.

The Neighborhood was not perfect; Sesame Street, which premiered in November 1969, had a much more diverse main cast. But Fred Rogers included a variety of neighbors, celebrating each one as part of the tremendous diversity of how God created each one of us.

Fred Rogers once wrote,

“The older I get, the more I seem to be able to appreciate my “neighbor” (whomever I happen to be with at the moment). Oh, sure, I’ve always tried to love my neighbor as myself; however, the more experiences I’ve had, the more chances I’ve had to see the uniqueness of each person…as well as each, and plant, and shell, and cloud…the more I find myself delighting every day in the lavish gifts of God, whom I’ve come to believe is the greatest appreciator of all.”[3]

For Fred Rogers, loving his neighbor—moving outside of his norm, reaching out and befriending those who were different—this was not a duty, or obedience to a commandment. Rather, it was a delight, a source of joy, a gift from God.

As you go into this week, I invite you to reflect on those times in your life when loving your neighbor—especially the neighbor who stretched you in some way, challenged your thinking, didn’t fit the mold—was a gift from God that expanded your understanding of yourself and the world, that brought you joy…

And I invite you to consider: are there deliberate effort can you make to expand your neighborhood, your sense of who is included and welcome, of understanding those outside of your “norm”?

Just like our Creator, Fred Rogers understood that a big part of what makes the kingdom beautiful is the diversity and variety of who is welcomed in. May we, too, find joy and delight as we expand our idea of who is welcome and included in our neighborhoods. Amen.

Preached by Rev. Lorene E. Wunder

[1] This and what follows is from Michael G. Long, Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers (2015: Westminster John Knox Press), pp. 85-87

[2] Michael G. Long, Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers (2015: Westminster John Knox Press), pp. 21-25

[3] The World According to Fred Rogers: Important Things to Remember (2003, Family Communications, Inc.), p. 143