I can’t explain it, but I always felt a deep sense of connection to Mister Rogers. The sounds of smooth jazz piano emanating from our wood-paneled TV was enough to send me running into the living room, just in time to sing along as Mister Rogers cheerfully walked into his blue-hued living room, ritualistically changing into his sweater and tennis shoes. Every episode began and ended the exact same way, except at the end before reversing the process, he fed his fish. We had a fish tank growing up, and time and time again, I pretended that I was feeing Mr. Rogers’ fish before I went to bed at night. Something about that ritualistic action week after week was so very comforting to me.
Aside from various guests and friends in the actual neighborhood, every episode included a check in on the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, governed by King Friday the 13th and Queen Sarah Saturday and full of all sorts of imaginary friends (Lady Elaine Fairchilde still freaks me out, though. That nose is entirely unnatural). We learned alongside Daniel Striped Tiger what it means to be patient and how to work through disappointment as a process. We learned about what happens when personal power goes awry when Lady Elaine Fairchilde’s weather machine takes on a life of its own.
But beyond the Keds, the brightly colored sweaters, “Trolley,” and “Picture-Picture,” Fred Rogers gave multiple generations of children something intangible: he gave us an honest language of love that was robust and multifaceted. He gave us the language to express our emotions to one another. He spoke to us as children very plainly but also very gently. He taught us about beautiful things such as our worthiness of love and embracing our gifts. He taught us about difficult things, such as divorce, and death, and what the word “assassination” meant. He taught us vital lessons about what to do when we get angry, or that it’s okay to feel sad sometimes, and that love is a renewable resource.
While he never took a church in the traditional sense, as a Presbyterian pastor, Fred Rogers invited us into his neighborhood. As a pastor who has been thinking on these things, it seems that’s what we as Christians are to be about: dealing with difficulty, speaking love, and bringing a spirit of empathy. This sort of invitation doesn’t have to be done in extravagant ways; the beauty of the neighborhood is that it was a brilliantly simple place. As he said himself, “Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.”
Rogers did it in a way that was natural and curious, asking people about what they did and what they loved, acknowledging the humanness of every person he encountered. Back to the fish for a moment, as he fed them, he often sang:
“It’s you I like, not the things you wear, not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you, not the things that hide you, Not your toys– They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like, every part of you: your skin, your eyes, your feelings, whether old or new. I hope that you’ll remember even when you’re feeling blue that it’s you I like, It’s you yourself, it’s you, it’s you I like.”
Which reminds me of another piece of wisdom:
“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” -1 Samuel 16:7
May we all be a little more like Mister Rogers. (And maybe a little less scary than Lady Elaine.)
Kristen Hanna serves as an associate pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A born and bred Texan, Kristen grew up in the Dallas area and received her Bachelor of Music from the Meadows School of the Arts and Master of Sacred Music from the Perkins School of Theology, both of Southern Methodist University. During her graduate work, Kristen served at various local churches in the Dallas area. Kristen grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and was confirmed in the United Methodist Church in 2009. When not planning worship or pondering theological conundrums, Kristen enjoys reading a wide variety of literature, knitting and sewing, solving the world’s problems over coffee with friends, and experiencing the beauty of North Carolina while walking her corgi, Rory.