“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a new documentary about the creator of the popular children’s public television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” provides insights about how to love our neighbors. Children were the focus of Fred Rogers’ half-hour program on public television that aired from 1968-2001, but his message, which remains relevant today, is not just for kids.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood affirmed children, addressed their fears, dealt with the realities of the world in which they lived and demonstrated solutions to challenges. Rogers testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications in May 1969 about the program’s approach. He hoped that his testimony would help secure crucial funding for the Public Broadcasting System, which aired his program. “We deal with such things as getting a haircut, or the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively,” Rogers said.
One of his really effective episodes on love of neighbor shows Mr. Rogers and a black law officer friend dipping their toes in a kiddie pool. The episode aired during a tense time in the civil rights movement. (Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is available on DVD and on Netflix, an online streaming service.)
Rogers abhorred violence on TV and in life and thought that feelings of anger could be expressed in more productive, positive ways. In his testimony before the senate subcommittee, he said that he thought it was much more dramatic to show two men working out their feelings of anger than to show gunfire. What would happen if today’s movie and video game producers focused their creativity on such an approach? Over time, could that help reduce gun violence and make violence-prone neighborhoods safer?
Children need a good feeling of control to manage their emotions, Rogers told the senate subcommittee. He shared a question a child once asked: “What do you do with the mad you feel?” Always taking his cue from kids, Mr. Rogers was inspired to create a song that offers options for dealing with the mad children feel when “the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right.” The song’s suggestions include pounding some clay or dough or rounding up friends for a game of tag.
Adults need options to deal with their anger, too. We might not play tag to deal with the mad we feel, but we can go for a run or a walk or say a prayer. What’s important is to stop ourselves from choosing the wrong option: yelling at someone, cutting off another driver in traffic, being rude to a sales assistant, a co-worker or someone whose political views differ from ours. Christ instructed us to love our neighbor and our enemies; he didn’t promise it would be easy.
Columnist Jenna Ebener, in a reflection in this week’s Catholic Messenger, says: “How we treat strangers, how we interact with people we pass in the street and how we respond to our family and closest friends especially after a stressful day all have a ripple effect that only God can see. Since we are all created in God’s image, he is in each and every one of us.”
“Whether telling a joke to someone who is disheartened, smiling at a stranger or being patient and kind while waiting in a long line, these are all small acts of love that show to others the face of Christ,” observes Father Troy Richmond. His column also appears in this week’s issue.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer, we learn, is anyone we encounter along life’s journey. We are to treat our neighbor with the compassion and mercy we ourselves hope to be treated with.
That’s the message that Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, conveyed so effectively in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Show times and locations for “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” are accessible on the internet. The documentary’s title gives all of us — children and adults — a good question to ponder.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor