‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ taught us to love—not fear—our neighbor.
RYAN J. PEMBERTON NOVEMBER 22, 2019
“Would you be mine, could you be mine, please would you be my neighbor?” The threefold question repeats for nearly 900 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s the recurring song Fred Rogers sings as he enters the front door, removes his jacket, replaces it with a zippered cardigan, and makes his way down the stairs of his television set home to swap out his dress shoes for canvas sneakers.
Growing up watching the slow-moving, soft-spoken Fred Rogers on PBS, I could not have imagined his resurgence in my mid-thirties. Yet Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the 2018 documentary on Fred Rogers’ television show, is already the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood releases on November 22, a dramatic retelling of the unexpected friendship between a journalist and Rogers, starring Tom Hanks as the most beloved neighbor in America. With an estimated budget of $40 million and one of Hollywood’s most amiable stars in the lead role, the man in the red sweater has become an unexpected commodity. But why the sudden popularity now?
Notably, Fred Rogers’s television entrance always climaxes with the same subject: “neighbor.” Specifically, it is an invitation to be a neighbor. In a way, it’s an echo of Jesus’s conversation with a lawyer in Luke 10, where he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the law?” Jesus asks in reply.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind,” the lawyer replies, recalling Deuteronomy 6:5. “And your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).
“You have given the right answer,” Jesus says. “Do this, and you will live.”
“And who is my neighbor?” he asks (Luke 10:25–29, ESV).
Jesus refuses to give the lawyer what he wants: a rule to follow. Nor does he offer a neat definition of neighbor to apply like a blueprint. Instead, Jesus tells a story that invites his listener to be a good neighbor—something that will continue acting on the imagination long after their conversation, and, in turn, shape his heart.
It’s a liturgical response to a practical question—not unlike Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the children’s TV show that ran from 1968 to 2001. “If there is a central biblical theme to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, this is it,” Amy Hollingsworth writes of the Good Samaritan in Rogers’s show in The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers.
In fact, what if the whole of Fred Rogers’s work was a liturgical invitation to embody the story of the Good Samaritan? What if Rogers was, over and over again, offering a model of what it looks like to be a good neighbor, loving our neighbor as ourselves?
The Liturgy of Love
Liturgy refers to the repeated movements, practices, and phrases that shape us into particular ways of life. They are “loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for,” writes philosopher James K. A. Smith in You Are What You Love. These rituals occur not only in our church services; they’re present in shopping malls, on our cell phones, and, of course, in the television and films we watch. “Our loves and longings are steered wrong, not because we’ve been hoodwinked by bad ideas, but because we’ve been immersed in de-formative liturgies and not realized it,” Smith writes. “As a result, we absorb a very different Story about the telos of being human and the norms for flourishing.”
Similarly, the late French philosopher René Girard suggests that our desires are learned by observation, rather than existing as innate, immutable aspects of ourselves. What we strive after is an imitation of what we see others pursuing and enjoying—what Girard calls “mimetic desire.” The work of Smith and Girard suggests that the formation (and de-formation) of our desires is quietly happening all the time, through all of our activities and habits, especially television and film.
Enter Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “We had a director who once said to me, ‘If you take all of the elements that make good television, [and] you do the opposite, you have Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’” Margaret Whitmer, one of the show’s producers, shares in the 2018 documentary. “Low production value, simple set, unlikely star. Yet, it worked. Because he was saying something really important.” Rogers initially worried people wouldn’t understand the depth of what he was trying to accomplish, especially when so many parodies of his slow, earnest style appeared in comedy sketches, according to Hedda Sharapan, another producer.
But the repeated language and practices, the steady, sing-song voice, and the unhurried pace of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t a misunderstanding of what makes for good television. Nor was it merely a reflection of Rogers’ personality. Each word and movement were painstakingly crafted for an intentional impact on his audience.
“He wanted to do things right, and whatever he did right, he wanted to repeat,” journalist Tom Junod writes in a 1998 Esquire article, “Can You Say…Hero? Mister Rogers, Especially Now,” which inspired the latest film. “Whatever he did right he would have to repeat, as though he were already living in eternity.”
Fred Rogers was a pioneer in recognizing television as a powerful vehicle of formation. It was this vision paired with his theological training that made for a truly unique approach. “He was ordained in the ministry of television,” reflected Nicholas Ma, the director of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As Rogers later acknowledged himself, “What we see and hear on the screen becomes who we are.” Out of a deep love and concern for children, Rogers filled his television show with intentionally crafted symbols, movements, and phrases—all designed to shape his audience into a particular way of being.
The Liturgy of Slowing Down
At the start of each episode, the camera passes through a model neighborhood before focusing on a single house. As it enters the home, the camera pans past a blinking yellow stoplight—a symbolic invitation to slow down. Another repeated practice involves Rogers feeding his fish on-air. His actions challenge the part of us who see his actions as a needless exercise in patience, unfit for television. Instead, by observing him taking care of his pets, he reminds us that caring for God’s creatures takes time—and it is worth it.
In the story Jesus tells in response to the lawyer’s question, two characters—a priest and a member of the tribe of Levi—pass by a traveler who had been robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead beside the road. Maybe they’re avoiding this person in their hurried pace. As anyone in ministry knows, the many voices calling out to those in religious leadership can leave little time to properly see our neighbor. We need rhythms and rituals that slow us down, counteracting our malformed relationship with time and our neighbor. The liturgies of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood repeatedly disrupt how we live within time so that we might see those around us not as interruptions to our efficiency or our “real work,” but as neighbors with whom we learn how to be.
Fear of neighbor is another possible explanation these two religious leaders pass by the beaten man in Luke 10 without helping. While touching “unclean” bodies could make them unfit to perform their religious duties, first-century Jewish priests had an obligation to bury a neglected corpse. Their avoidance must have gone beyond religious duty. Fear of the other is rampant during our own day as much as it was when Rogers repeatedly addressed it on air.
In the first week of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the ruler of the Land of Make-Believe, King Friday XIII, orders guards to stand watch against foreigners and the corresponding change they will bring, demanding a wall be built to ensure safety. Characters fly balloons over the wall in response, carrying invitations to live counter to the dictates of fear, lives characterized by peace, friendship, and love. The invitation is a success, and King Friday reverses his commands for a wall, giving the opportunity for enemies to become neighbors, and neighbors to become friends (a clear echo of the Good Samaritan story). This early scene captures a key objective Rogers had for his show: re-shaping anger or fear of neighbor into love and compassionate care.
“Evil would like nothing better than to have us feel awful about who we are,” Rogers told Hollingsworth on the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1994. “And that would be back in here [in our minds], and we’d look through those eyes at our neighbor, and see only what’s awful—in fact, look for what’s awful in our neighbor.”
The accuser, unlike our Lord, teaches us to fear our neighbor. The Good Samaritan story not only forms us into those who love our neighbor as God’s image bearer, it expands our understanding of who qualifies as our neighbor.
The Liturgy of Relationship
Though I didn’t realize it growing up watching the show, the intro song to each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood invited me to see myself as a neighbor in relationship with other neighbors. In the beginning of each episode, Mister Rogers wasn’t just swapping out his clothes—he was becoming vulnerable to his audience. He made himself intimate, approachable, and available.
Rogers invited his viewers to be open to our own neighbors by modeling it himself. His television set home was always open to neighbors. “I’d like for you to know my television neighbor,” he often told viewers, introducing another member of his community. In the May 9, 1969 episode, one year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Rogers cooled his bare feet in a plastic pool on a hot day when his local police officer stopped by. At Rogers’ invitation, Officer Clemmons, a black man, joined him in the foot bath. The invitation offered an important counter-formation in viewers’ minds in a time when African Americans were violently removed from “white” swimming pools. Rogers realized that the minds and hearts of our nation’s children needed a different story and he offered them one.
“The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends,” Francois Clemmons shares in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, by Maxwell King, “but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”
Foot washing, of course, is just what Jesus calls his followers to do (John 13:14). In this subversive, timely example, Rogers showed us what such love in action looks like. The model of neighborly interactions with others of all skin colors, mobility levels, and otherwise invites viewers to slow down, to question any relationships governed by fear, and to turn those interactions on their head with vulnerable love.
“Some things you see are confusing, some things you hear are strange,” Rogers sings in his song, “Look And Listen,” for more than 30 episodes. “But if you ask someone to explain one or two, You’ll begin to notice a change in you.” Ultimately, these liturgies explore a way of life that manifests the shalom Scripture promises.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Fred Rogers’s return to the mainstream comes at a time when the political, ecclesial, and ethnic schisms in our lives have left us looking for help in navigating divisive days. The solution must be complex enough to address the malformation of our hearts and minds: we no longer know who our neighbor is, because we’ve forgotten what it means to be a neighbor. Jesus’ tale of the Good Samaritan who found his neighbor beaten and bloodied beside the road to Jerusalem is not a story to be heard once and understood. It is intended to be told and re-told, acting on our imagination so that this story might be lived out, so that we might live (Luke 10:28).
But living into this story requires a deep counter-formation. And that counter-formation requires a creative, subversive approach. We are in need of transformation that digs deeper through repeated stories, language, and practices that bend the walls of our minds and hearts toward shalom.
“He’s a lot more complex than I thought,” the journalist, played by Matthew Rhys, says of Rogers at one point in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Fred Rogers’s life represents a liturgical invitation to embody the story of one who was a neighbor when a neighbor was needed—that others might receive the invitation to be a neighbor. It’s an invitation we refuse at risk of our own destruction. So we say, thank you, Mister Rogers. Thank you for welcoming us into your neighbor-hood.
Ryan J. Pemberton is the minister for university engagement at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley and author of Called: My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again and Walking With C. S. Lewis: A Spiritual Guide Through His Life and Writings. Follow Ryan at @ryanjpemberton or RyanJPemberton.com.