Simplicity. Community. Gentleness. Integrity. Peace. Humility. Hope. Agape.
These gloriously radical values cherished and practiced by the Church of the Brethren are infused into every frame of the new documentary on “Mister” Fred Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor. Even the love feast makes an appearance, as this improbable icon invites a black policeman to cool his weary feet in a child's wading pool.
This is in the time of Jim Crow, as the film reminds us. And Morgan Neville, who produced the work along with Nicholas Ma and Caryn Capotosto (Tremolo Productions), is deft, bold, and wise in handling it.
We are forced to watch as hotel manager James Brock pours muriatic acid into a pool where terrified black children are swimming. But juxtaposed with that horrific scene we see the intimate duo of Rogers and the policeman cooling their heels. And the epiphany of these two men with rolled-up pants legs sharing a towel is as luminous as it is familiar to those who practice feetwashing. The filmmakers want us to know we are witnessing a revolution and a revelation!
Slowly they peel back the gauzy layers of nostalgia to show us that beneath the tasteful tie and colorful cardigan pulsed the heart of a tiger. It’s a small, stuffed tiger named Daniel, but still a personality as powerful as Aslan, the great cat imaged by C. S. Lewis in the mythical land of Narnia.
In his own way, Fred Rogers was—and still is, through his legacy—a fiercely uncompromising prophetic voice, singing clarion gospel truths into the wasteland/wilderness of American television. He was counter-cultural before anyone had a word for it.
The producers first show footage of garish clowns behaving badly. In this way, we see how an ordained Presbyterian minister who never used his “Rev.” title castigated the violent, vile, dumbed-down, toxic waste that has been routinely marketed to children as entertainment. In our still-unfolding digital world this remains a critical challenge for the church.
Mister Rogers introduced, instead, a “peaceable kingdom”—a Beloved Community called his “Neighborhood,” where all people are welcomed, and everyone is safe. Here you are invited to bring your deepest fears, your most profound questions, and even your outrageous, occasionally terrifying emotions, where they, and you, can be embraced and transformed.
Rogers never presided over a congregation. Instead, he served as a gentle pastor to millions of American children. He never specifically spoke about Jesus, that I remember. Rather, he embodied the Savior as well as any parish minister I’ve ever known.
He dared to go even where few adult programs ventured, and he did this with very young souls. Most “grown-ups,” including me, struggle with change. Yet the very first “Neighborhood” programs were devoted to the subject. In an early episode, King Friday XIII (that id-driven monarch in every mirror) is fearful about the masses getting too close to the castle. His initial response is to build a big wall. It’s instructive, and exceedingly relevant, to see how that unfolds.
The film takes its time, just as Fred Rogers did, using archived clips and leisurely interviews to show us how the man struggled. He wrestled, for instance, with the dilemma of how, and how much, to share with toddlers about real-world violence, especially after 9/11. His wife and others tell us how he grew as an artist, and as a Christian brother to a friend who was gay.
I wish every Anabaptist, and indeed every American, could see this film. My prayer is that some will be inspired to call and empower new prophetic voices: people who will show and tell us of the things that are excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8-9).
Paula Bowser is a retired pastor in the Church of the Brethren.
ABOUT THE FILM
Title: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
Release date: June 8, 2018.
Run time: 94 minutes.
What they’re saying: “A poignant tribute to the mild-mannered father figure who served as moral compass to generations.” —Rafer Guzman, Newsday
Notes: Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. His show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” was produced in Pittsburgh. It originated in 1963 and debuted nationally in the US in 1968. It ran through August 2001.