This weekend, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens to screens nationwide, a tribute to the life and work of Fred Rogers, played by actor Tom Hanks. We Presbyterians are very proud to be associated with this particular pastor. The Presbyterian Historical Society celebrates the impact of this uniquely gifted child of God:
Fred Rogers grew up in western Pennsylvania in the town of Latrobe, where he attended Latrobe Presbyterian Church. As a student at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he majored in music composition, he had his first encounter with television, and was appalled by the children’s programs he saw. He thought, “Children deserve better.” In 1953, he was invited by WQED in Pittsburgh, the nation’s first community-supported public television station, to co-produce a daily program called The Children’s Corner. The experience convinced him he had a future in children’s television. https://www.history.pcusa.org/blog/remembering-mr-rogers
A graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Fred Rogers was ordained by the Presbyterian Church in 1963 with the charge to continue his unique ministry to children through television. I was privileged to be among the millions of young kids who Mr. Rogers discipled through his daily program. It was truly an advanced course in Jesus’ total lifestyle. “Through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he taught generations of children the quintessentially Christian but profoundly universal message of ‘Love yourself, love others.’"
At the age of seven, I remember tuning in to see Mr. Rogers place his feet in a plastic pool on a hot day with the local policeman, Officer Clemmons. The two men, one white and the other black, took off their shoes and put them in the water together. As the camera zoomed in on their submerged feet side by side I noticed the contrasting color of their skin. It was a kind of baptism of my racial-ethnic imagination. The program was exceedingly relevant, for in some parts of the country Americans with dark skin were being violently removed from “white” swimming pools, and just one year before this episode aired, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down and murdered in Memphis, TN. I later learned that Francois Clemmons, who Fred Rogers met at his church in Pittsburg, was also a gay man – only heightening the significance of this episode about neighbor love. My elementary school friend Andre and I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons. They helped us easily break the color-barrier with our own childhood friendship, as he was my first friend of the darker hue, but certainly not the last.
All this reminds me today that our ability to foster friendship and compassion as the church is immense, if we will invite others to place their feet in the tub with us. All too often, the church has become a place where divisions in our society are merely duplicated rather than overcome, or where divisions that have been overcome are not duplicated. I have failed on more than one occasion to live out my highest ideals in this regard and I need the Spirit of Jesus more than ever to aid me on this journey of reconciliation and “foot tub theology.”
In this day of dis-ease and national division, when we are tempted to choose which neighbor to love or care for based upon politics, social status, religious views, or lifestyle choices, Mr. Rogers challenges us to do more than surround ourselves with “the right neighbors.” He invites us, instead, to be the right neighbors. Toward that end, I am reminded that holidays like Thanksgiving can be a time to break bread not only with family, but with friends and neighbors and even strangers who we have invited from the larger community. May I also suggest that we begin praying for those in our circle of influence who do not share our faith or background, and then invite them to dinner or to our church in celebration of Christ’s birth?
Like Fred Rogers, we continue to be inspired by Jesus who told a parable about a Jewish man beaten, robbed, and left for dead, who is rescued and nursed back to health by his enemy, a despised Samaritan. The unforgettable story is meant to teach us that a truly good neighbor crosses the boundaries of hatred and prejudice to do what love requires. Jesus himself did this, and much more, when he entered human flesh, lived a life of compassion, welcomed children, included gentiles and outcasts, ate with tax gatherers and sinners, forgave his enemies, and showed us the depth of God’s suffering love. May we follow in his footsteps, and join him in his foot tub, in this Holy Season.