Mr. Fred Rogers, the star of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, not only challenges the concept of love, but what it is to express it. Mr. Rogers believed that everyone had God-given intrinsic value that made them lovable and capable of loving one another, whereas most people feel or are told that in order to be loved they have to earn it by performing, or behaving, or by some other metric that causes them to change. Mr. Rogers believed that the greatest evil was to tell someone they are less than they are, so he made sure they knew they were loved no matter the metric.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? follows the TV star over the course of his almost four decades on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Each chapter of the documentary begins with Mr. Rogers in different interviews questioning topics like how mindless TV affects people or why it is important to talk with children about death and divorce. He believed that the space between the television and the viewer was “holy ground,” where “a lot can happen.” To explain the method to these unprecedented feats in children’s television, the filmmakers interviewed those closest to him – either his family members or people who he worked with on the show. Despite being present for what he did, they are as dumbfounded as those who look at his life from the outside. Much like Mr. Rogers’ own show, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? trades quick transitions, bombastic music, and a flurry of artistic shot composition for long takes, the gentle keys of a piano and strings of a cello, and a singular focus on the man and what he did. Were the film to be fast-paced or have multiple images or sounds parading on the screen at once, the meek strength of Mr. Rogers, and his quiet, focused message would have been lost in the mix. This structure of the documentary creates a space free of distractions for the audience to absorb plenty of new information about his life and philosophy.
Early in the film, Mr. Rogers says, “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” When he looked around at the world, he saw children being bombarded by images of clowns slamming pies into people’s faces, African-Americans being thrown out of hotel pools and families falling apart. He was horrified by the lack of love on television, and initially, was disgusted by the medium as a whole. To counteract the negativity he saw, he created his own safe neighborhood where children could learn how to deal with real-world conflict and their own internal struggles. This idea of a safe neighborhood sounds similar to the idea of the “safe spaces” we see popping up all over college campuses. While both operate under the same basic concept of “safety” from the outside world, safe spaces focus on avoidance of opposing or dangerous views, while the safe neighborhood embraced them. As much as Mr. Rogers was heartbroken over the sad reality of things like divorce, he knew these problems were not going away. Children needed to be able to interact with the reality of these issues in a safe environment or be set up for failure in the future. Many of us who have grown up in the church have seen the repercussions of the “safe space” philosophy. Unfortunately, our pastors often didn’t know how to interact with the nuances of real-world topics like homosexuality or illegal immigration, except to say that they were wrong. This has left Christians’ response to these topics confusing. We often feel caught between acceptance born from a desire to love or resistance born from a desire to be righteous; with no clear answer as to which is the right choice. While Mr. Rogers was not always perfect in how he responded to these difficult ideas, the majority of the time he seemed to find a path between acceptance and resistance. Even his chosen method of communication was one that he righteously resisted at first, but he used it to spread a tremendous amount of loving acceptance.
His ideal concept of a “neighbor” was a Biblical one. As an ordained Presbyterian minister and a lifelong follower of Jesus, Mr. Rogers had a firm grasp on the second greatest commandment, “To love your neighbor as yourself.” The lyric in his opening song of each episode, as he put on his sweater and sneakers, was an invitation to children and other viewers: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” In a world where children bully one another, have strenuous relationships with their parents, or are bedridden with sickness –like young Mr. Rogers– Mr. Rogers wanted to create a community where children could be valued for who they already were, not for what they could become. Mr. Rogers shared that as a child he was not allowed to express emotions in front of his parents. In order to earn their love he had to always behave; love was conditional. Mr. Rogers saw this as an epidemic, where people had to perform, or behave, or act in a certain way in order to be loved and accepted. He wanted to love people unconditionally. This is why so many in the public sphere long for his input during these times of great division in our country. We need people like Mr. Rogers to see someone with a different racial background, or gender, or sexuality, or ideology and invite them to be our neighbor, not necessarily by proximity, but relationally. Just like in the Neighborhood, people can disagree and have conflict, but our purpose as neighbors is to remain united despite those differences. In John 4, the woman at the well was quick to point out why she and Jesus were different – specifically race, gender, and moral status – but Jesus disregarded these objections. Instead, he offered her something everyone needs: “Living water,” a deep, abiding relationship with God that does not dry up in any circumstance. She needed to know she was loved and valued as she was. After being isolated from her community, someone needed to ask her if she would be their neighbor. That caused her to turn from adultery and become a servant of God, not performance. If we are all honest with ourselves, we could all use more people like Mr. Rogers who value us for who we are and not what we should be. We need more people who want to be our neighbor.
One of the greatest sins we can commit as Christians is to tell people that they are less than they are, because we know through Jesus how valuable God has made all of us. It is easy to make Christianity an empty religion with elaborate notions that lead to nothing. The harder road, the narrow road, is to ask believers and nonbelievers, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”