We all Live in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

By Chris Sparks

Deep within us — no matter who we are — there lives a feeling of wanting to be lovable, of wanting to be the kind of person that others like to be with. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving. 
— Fred Rogers, The World According To Mister Rogers

Who is my neighbor? And what do I owe them?

Scripture has many answers.

A neighbor is kin (see Deut 15:2).

Throughout the Mosaic Law, we read of our obligations to our neighbor. You shall not steal, defraud, or injure your neighbor. You shall not slander them, or put their life in danger.

Indeed, you shall love your neighbor as yourself (see Lev 19:8).

Jesus put love of God and neighbor at the root of the Law and the Prophets, and then expanded that commandment to eternity when He said, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34; 15:12).

Who is my neighbor, and what do I owe them?

Fred Rogers lived it. Look at any picture of him, and just as is the case with anyone who truly, deeply lives their Christian faith, you can see the answer in his eyes.

There’s been a lot of talk about Mr. Rogers recently, fueled by the 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and the 2019 film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks. Though Fred Rogers died in 2003, his legacy is more relevant and more powerful now than ever, aging like a fine wine.

And what is that legacy?

Part of it is the hundreds of episodes of his award-winning TV show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Part of it is the speeches, the books, the interviews. But an even larger and more important part of his legacy is the millions of people who watched him, who were touched by him, and the millions who are still being touched by him — by the witness of his person and his presence; by his stubborn adherence to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and by his determined living out of that Gospel in his work and in his life.

His show didn’t just entertain children; it spoke to children. It treated children as persons, as immortal souls with intellects, wills, and passions — as beloved children of God. It treated us like Fred Rogers himself would have wanted to be treated, because Fred Rogers remembered what it was to be a child.

Father Andy Davy, MIC, grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and he knew even then it was different from everything else on television. “I think there was just a very real sense he was talking to me, whereas a lot of other shows were either talking to someone else or they were talking down to me,” Fr. Andy said. “He was someone who actually really understood me.” The power of the show lay in “the sense that this man really cared about me, and that I was someone who was good, someone who was special, someone that he didn’t just like in just a general sort of way, a quick way, but even my little child’s brain and little heart recognized here’s someone who really paid attention to me, even though he’s on the other side of the TV.”

In Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, we are all neighbors, all of us, the whole wide world of humanity. We all owe each other love, and justice, and peace. With Mr. Rogers, we witness contemplation in action. We witness a man seeing the world the way it really is, and seeing people through the eyes of the Father of Mercies. We see a man being just to his neighbors, to their incredible, ineffable dignity, and to the wonders of the world around him. That, of course, meant that he was merciful to the merciless, kind to the coldhearted, and generous to a world that often caused him substantial pain and frustration.

Fred Rogers lived mercy — a costly mercy; the same sort of costly mercy that Jesus, the Divine Mercy, gave to the world from the Cross. Mister Rogers’ mercy was a mercy of listening, of openness to the other, of speaking to people where they were at. According to the 2019 book The World According To Mister Rogers, he once said, “Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.”

Who is my neighbor? The whole wide world. What do I owe them? The justice that leads to peace; the divine love with which I am loved; the Divine Mercy that Jesus gives us all. 

Mister Rogers’ neighborhood was as wide as God’s own neighborhood, as wide as creation, as open to the other as any Christian ever has been or ever will be. And in that neighborhood, all are to love the other as they love themselves, and as they are loved by Jesus. As Fred Rogers said in 1994 at the commencement exercises for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (of which he was an alumnus), “You know, it’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that ultimately there is someone who loves our very being.”

PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

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