I'm Sorry, Mister Rogers
Peacemakers Are Stronger Than You Think
by Eric Elkin
Our Wednesday night Bible Study group is reading a book about Mister Rogers. The book is titled, The Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers. I had never thought of Mister Rogers as being countercultural. The book is opening my eyes to a person I never knew.
Truth be told, I never liked Mister Rogers and would only watch his show to make fun of him. “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” on Saturday Night Live was more my speed. It seemed more authentic than the soft-spoken man who appeared to be lacking testosterone.
Eddie Murphy’s spin on Mister Rogers was more than a joke. I think he was saying that the world of Fred Rogers looked nothing like the neighborhood of Eddie Murphy’s childhood. It is hard for a child who does not grow up around peaceful adults to believe in or trust gentle souls like Fred Rogers.
My wife loved Mister Rogers and made sure our children watched his show. She loved how calm and patient he was in his speech and how he presented information in a way children could understand. One of her favorites were the segments explaining how things worked. Now our children love him for the same reasons and cannot understand my dislike of him.
In preparation for the class, I watched a series of videos referenced in the book. One video invites children to “grow ideas in the garden of their mind.” It has been viewed twelve million times. Another was Mr. Rogers saying goodbye. The video closes with him reminding us what he has always told us, “I like you just the way you are.” The words filled my heart with peace.
Michael Long, the author the book, describes how Fred Rogers addressed difficult topics with children. For example, three weeks before Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired on national television, North Vietnamese troops launched what has become known as the “Tet Offensive.” For the first time in America, people were beginning to realize the war was not going as well as our leaders told us.
The attack even caught Walter Cronkite off-guard. He is quoted as saying, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war?” Two weeks prior to the shows’ release, Martin Luther King, Jr. led "Clergy and Laity Concerned for Vietnam" on a silent vigil for peace at Arlington National Cemetery.
Fred Rogers addressed the sudden world of chaos by calmly changing his shoes and putting on a sweater. He sang about a beautiful day in the neighborhood, but then spent the rest of the show talking to children about war and peace. But he did it in a way only a peaceful neighbor could. “…He used ‘peace balloons’ to teach about peace” and then used the same balloons to teach children about the physics of flying balloons.
Rogers, a Presbyterian minister who embraced Quaker theology, fully embraced Jesus as the nonviolent love of God incarnate. Jesus was his point of reference when looking for ways to create a peaceable kingdom here and now. So, it was hard for me not to hear Mister Rogers in Zechariah’s song:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
I’m sorry Mister Rogers for not listening or respecting you in a way you deserved. Your commitment to peace was a source of strength to the world and a light to those sitting in darkness. And, despite my not liking you, I'm glad you liked me just the way I am.
Click to read Luke 1: 68-79
How did you feel about Mister Rogers when you were a child?
Who influenced you most as a child?
What were the lessons they were trying to teach you?
How possible is peace in a world torn by conflict?