A Tribute to Mister Rogers, A Faithful Minister or I Want to Make-Believe: Whitterings, October 2007

I want to talk about one of my heroes. His photograph is in my sitting room where I keep pictures of many of my heroes: Archbishop Oscar Romero, Archbishop William Temple, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston CR, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, Archbishop Richard Holloway, Bishop Charles Gore, Bishop Frank Weston, Bishop James Patterson, Bishop Edward King of Lincoln, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Fr Maximilian Kolbe, Fr Alexander MacKonochie, Fr Hope Patton, Fr Teilhard de Chardin, Br Thomas Merton, Wittgenstein, Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, Jimmy Carter, Ghandi, and, of course, Soren Kierkegaard. All of them were religious people. Most of them represented God through his Church in ordained ministry.

The man I want to talk about was a man of God who is much, much more famous to most people. He was a man who spent his entire adult life revealing, every day, the love of Christ to some of the neediest people in our society. I would argue that he is the best known and most loved North American Christian Minister of the second half of the twentieth century. He revealed the love of Christ to more people on this continent than any other minister, priest, Bishop or Pope. Yet, professionally, he never mentioned religion, theology, Jesus, or God. Almost no one knew he was a Christian let alone ordained. The man I am referring to was The Reverend Frederick McFeely Rogers, universally known simply as Mister Rogers.

Mister Rogers was an Ordained Presbyterian Minister who was mandated by his presbytery to carry out his ministry in children’s television. His sole purpose was changing what he though was a violent destructive media into a means of “broadcasting Grace throughout the land”. He began his programming in 1963 on the CBC. His early Canadian shows gave Ernie Coombs, who would later go on to be ‘Mister Dress Up’, his start in TV. ‘Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood’ aired five days a week, every week. When he went off the air in 2003 he had written, produced, and hosted the longest running children’s television program in history.

His message was simple -you are special and you are loved. He said it many times every day. For those of us who grew up with Mister Rogers (those between 10 and 45) it is obvious why he was so important. He was genuine, he was real. He was gentle. He was loving. He said of TV broadcasting "The whole idea is to look into the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it,". He was the same off camera as he was on camera and children instinctively knew this. The respect that he commanded was astounding. For example, Mister Rogers drove a simple old Impala for years. One day the car was stolen from the street near the TV station. When Mister Rogers filed a police report, the story was picked up by every newspaper, radio and media outlet around town. Within 48 hours the car was left in the exact spot from where it had been stolen with an apology on the dashboard. It read, “If we’d known it was yours, we never would have taken it.” The only group ever to publicly denounce him was a fundamentalist evangelical group because he refused to support an anti-gay position. When asked at the time by the media what he thought about gay people he simply said, “God loves you just the way you are.” You can just hear him saying it.

When he died in 2003 the internet tributes were spontaneous and heart wrenching. Many wrote that during their childhood he was the only adult they trusted, and saddest, the only one that they really believed loved them. Many said he was their best friend.

“I grew up, like many people, with Mister Rogers. My mom was a single parent, and I was often alone while she worked to take care of my brother and I. Whenever I felt down or upset abut something, I knew I could always turn on Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood to make me feel better. Mister Rogers wasn't just a picture inside a TV tube. He was my friend, he was our friend.”

“When I was a child, I actually thought "Mister Rogers" was talking to me through the television. He taught me how to share, how to cry, how to tie my shoes, and most importantly, how to be a friend. Another valuable lesson Mister Rogers taught me was that it was okay to cry, and so I am crying now, for I have truly lost my first REAL friend. Goodbye Mister Rogers. I love you.”

“I am now 20 but I can still remember Mister Rogers in my very early childhood. He was always there to sing a song to me if I was lonely or scared. People may call him old fashioned, but he taught me that imagination is the basis of happiness. He was also one of the only people who would tell me everyday how much he cared even if he was just talking through the TV. I will never forget him.”

Mister Rogers received numerous honorary doctorates and awards including the highest civilian honour in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On March 4, 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed Resolution 111 honoring Rogers for "his legendary service to the improvement of the lives of children, his steadfast commitment to demonstrating the power of compassion, and his dedication to spreading kindness through example ." On March 5, 2003 the U.S. Senate unanimously passed Resolution 16 to commemorate the life of Fred Rogers."Through his spirituality and placid nature, Mister Rogers was able to reach out to our nation's children and encourage each of them to understand the important role they play in their communities and as part of their families. More importantly, he did not shy away from dealing with difficult issues of death and divorce but rather encouraged children to express their emotions in a healthy, constructive manner, often providing a simple answer to life's hardships." Early next year the city of Pittsburgh will unveil a statue of him in the city centre.

What impresses and touches me the most, and what must be the greatest honour, is that at the Smithsonian Institute in Washingtoon DC, the third most requested and visited exhibit is a simple glass case containg one of Mister Rogers’s famous red cardigan sweaters knitted by his mother.

Mister Rogers closed his Commencment Address at Dartmouth College a few months before he died like this:

"It's you I like.
It's not the things you wear.
It's 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 caps and gowns,
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 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.

And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed. So in all that you do, in all of your life, I wish you the strength and the grace to make those choices which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best of whoever you are.”

In an adult world Mister Rogers’s dialogue sounds like modern overly PC, warm, fuzzy, tripe. But those in his audience were children and they could hear and understand his message. When his children grew up they could still hear his message, even though it was still presented in the simple language of children. They could hear it because they knew the man who said it, they knew his voice and they knew he meant it. The message was simple, I love you. Even though he never met most of his neighbors you could tell he cared about them. By doing so he made many frightened children feel safe, he gave many lonely children a friend, he gave many with no self respect dignity, he gave hope to those who saw no future, and to many who did not feel loved he gave love.

A Christian’s goal is to use their life to point to something beyond themselves, to point to God. A Christian’s goal in loving is to reveal the love of Christ to people. I can not think of a better example of a beautiful Christian life than that of The Reverend Fred Rodgers. Mister Rogers' favorite passages of Scripture was from the end of the eighth chapter of Romans:

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

That is what he believed. That is what he lived.

I feel that no matter what words I use, I can not do him or his ministry justice. The best I can do is to say, that although I never met him: I grew up with him, I counted him as a friend and I loved him. The day he died I wept.

Rest eternal grant unto him O lord
And let light perpetual shine upon him.
May he rest in peace and rise in glory.