I heard his voice singing to me as he put on his cardigan. In a room full of people he was speaking to me because I was lonely. I closed my eyes and could feel rust colored carpeting against my hands as I lay on the living room floor. The smell of cheap perfume and my grandmother’s cigarettes permeated everything. I was a little boy again. The man realized that though Fred Rogers cared, it wasn’t enough to counter life’s pain. But at least he tried.
Last night I saw the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”. It was about Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers). It is an excellent film about a man who tried to make a difference to children. He saw the noise on television, saw us grooming children into consumers full of angst and doubt. In a world that moving faster and wilder and flashy, he came on and did the opposite. He slowed down, and we who were children paid attention. It felt like he was speaking to us because he was. It felt like he cared about us because he did.
As an adult, watching this documentary and seeing who he was and what drove him, I was moved to near tears several times. I also found myself angry and frustrated and feeling a little bit lost again.
The Impact Mister Rogers Had on Me
My dad left when I was of pre school age and never bothered to do little things like pay child support or be involved. My mother, after years of his emotional abuse with no support worked a full time job, a part time job, and got high and slept when not working. We lived with my grandparents. They had already raised their kids, they did not bargain on having me around the house. So I was relegated to the television while my grandmother did whatever it was she did. What chance did I have?
Abandoned, poor, and surrounded by dysfunction. To have one voice say he loved me and that I mattered was a salve. This same voice coming through PBS told me that feelings were all right. He taught me how to deal with them when they felt too big and gave me permission to say that I am small in a big world and it is scary.
Like his approach being the opposite of what children’s television was at the time, what he had to say was the opposite of what I was hearing from everyone else. Because of it I felt less loss, less alone, and had a dash of self worth and dignity.
But it was not enough. There was so much noise. Capitalism bases worth on how much you earn and how much you own. Modern religion, unlike his theology of love, violates love and the idea that some loving creator personally cares about every living being.
When I was 9, my mother would remarry and I would go from some dysfunction to full on abuse. It was then that I stopped tuning in to PBS. There was no quality programming for older kids and I was in hell without a balm for the burns and a light in the intense darkness I lived in.
I had the memories of the messages and they must have been enough, because when I was 13 I would take his advice and tell an adult I was scared and why I was scared. That got me out of that environment. One last vestige of self worth and belief that I deserved better had me reach out to find a helper and someone who cares in the neighborhood. That was the difference and the impact Mister Rogers had on me.
A Legacy Disrespected
If you see the documentary you will understand how brilliant he was in his vision and how ahead of his time he was. Across the street from his memorial Westboro Baptist Church protested his legacy and in the crowd holding signs were children. Children taught to hate. Children taught to judge.
In the years that followed we would see Fox News show “Fox and Friends” hosts call him and “evil evil man”. When the documentary showed that Fox News clip I audibly exclaimed “What?” in the theater. After the movie my son explained to me that Mister Rogers is one of the right wing’s talking points in claiming why Millennials feel entitled.
To tell someone they are loved as they are for who they are is not entitlement. That is basic human decency. Conservative evangelicals that try to argue with me forget that I used to be one of them. I was a conservative evangelical youth pastor. At the core of their doctrine of evangelism is this concept that god loves us so much that he gave his only begotten son and offers us eternal life and there is nothing we have to do, or can do, to earn this love. It is a gift bestowed upon us.
We see this doctrine at sporting events when they hoist the sign that reads John 3:16. That passage reads:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Another one they like to quote that I knew all too well as a key passage in theology regarding grace is Ephesians 2:4-5:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
If Mister Rogers was responsible for creating entitlement, then he was merely following the core teachings of the Christian God and their Jesus. Mister Rogers told us he cared about us and we mattered. He asked us to care about others and tell them they matter. Evangelicals promise us we are loved by a god who also wants to give us eternal life and a mansion, but somehow we need to forget the dirty immigrant children at the border. The poor deserve no mercy because unlike you, they did not succeed in capitalism. Which vision has more entitlement? Which one is the more dangerous philosophy?
To those who are conservative evangelical Christians, I will give you one more verse. None of the passages I shoot at you are quoted by the liberal mainline churches, this is your stuff I am using. Your version of faith is hurting children and dangerous. It is scary and they feel so small and so helpless in a big and angry world.
This is what you have done. Your teachings are corrupt and dangerous and your Jesus had some things to say about that. Matthew 18:6-7 is one you should do your next small group discussion on. The core of it is this, if you hurt a child with bad teaching, god will avenge the children. And as one who got a A in hermeneutics class I can tell you this, the millstone around the neck drowning punishment? Death by drowning is the only punishment more terrifying to someone in Jesus’ time than crucifixion. Will you continue to teach that some children are not special to God and not loved enough to take in? Will you violate your own principles in the name of God? That, my friend, is the textbook definition of taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
The legacy of Fred Rogers is more noble and true than the current reality of conservative christianity.
How Does One Honor Rogers’ Legacy?
When black people were being kicked out of public pools, Mister Rogers had the black recurring character on his show, Officer Clemmons come to his house. In this episode they cooled their feet together in a kiddie pool. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated he had Daniel the Striped Tiger talk to Lady Aberlin about his fears and receive comfort from an adult. He went into living rooms and loved children regardless of their race, religion, income level or any other such thing.
When we see people excluding immigrants, LGBTQIA+ people, black people, brown people and others, these are the people we share friendship with publicly and do with them the things others would deny them.
When scary things happen in this world, we need to allow people, especially children and the vulnerable, their feelings and offer comfort.
While doing these things, it is also more than okay to tell those that are doing harm that they are doing harm. Fred Rogers did this. He had a vision, he had a mission and he knew not only what he was for, but what he was against. He had a gentle but firm approach to things that would harm children, but he did have an approach.
Children Need Us To Be More Like Mister Rogers
There are children being hurt by far more than just television today.
Countless children are separated by their parents near the border. They go into courtrooms having no idea what is going on and with no legal representation. Some have sat in cages and are facing abuse at the hands of ICE authorized by our president to do so.
Young transgender and gender non conforming children are facing legalized discrimination and harm by conservative christians. The same is true of all LGBTQIA+ children. Recently, a 10 year old boy was beaten to death by his step dad for being gay.
In churches and homes across America, children are being taught to hate people based on the color of their skin, who they love, what their gender is, and what church they go to. Some of them even go to public spaces holding signs and screaming at people that god hates them.
The children need us and the adults who hurt them need to be shown the harm they are doing.
Mister Rogers Last Lesson To Me
My son was born in 2000. When 9/11 happened I held a baby in my arms and watched with horror what was happening on the television. I was lost and scared and had no idea how to raise a child in this new world. As I held my helpless infant with tears in my eyes, I watched the towers fall. I apologized to my child for bringing him into such a world.
Not too long after the towers fell, he would be on PBS one last time. He spoke to me in my living room again. Only this time it was not man to child, it was man to man. Parent to parent. He reminded me one more time that he was grateful for me and liked me as I am. He assumed I, and all the other children he once taught that grew up, would do whatever it takes to protect our children and keep them safe.
In the documentary we learned that the encourager needed to be encouraged to film this message that meant so much to me. He did not feel there was any point to this message and it was too big. It’s okay to be scared and sometimes things do feel like they are too big. I felt the same way he did. When I saw his message, I felt like I would get through this and that I could protect my child.
It is my hope he knew that some of us went on to become better parents than our parents. I hope he knew that some of us share pools and bathrooms with people whom others attack.
I hope we all know this work he started needs to continue now more than ever.
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