By Kathy Menard
Assistant to Campus Ministry and Coordinator of Community Outreach
I do not recall how old I was when I began to watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I would suspect it was around the age of three or four, which was just about in line with the target audience. As a child, I was not permitted to watch very many shows, most of them being deemed inappropriate or just simply a waste of time. In addition to Saturday morning cartoons, I remember Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Romper Room (where I waited with bated breath to hear my name called through the “magic mirror”, to no avail), and, of course, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The Brady Bunch might have been squeezed in there to. However, Fred Rogers’ and his zip up, cardigan sweater, is what I remember the most.
Mr. Rogers made me feel safe. He had a way of making everyone feel special. He treated everyone as if they were all unique, special, and appreciated, and to him they all were. I remember the “speedy delivery” man, the handyman, the neighborhood baker, and Officer Clemmons. Oh, and Lady Aberlin, the friendly, soft spoken, neighbor and all the puppets from the Neighborhood of Make Believe!
Looking back now, what stands out the most though were his guests. The carpenters, musicians, writers, bus drivers, plumbers, electricians, teachers, the list goes on and on. Each one from a different culture and/or race. All were introduced as someone we, as a society, could not live without. And, one was not deemed more important than the other, nor were any deemed of less importance. Fred Rogers loved them all and his goal was to teach his audience to love them all as well.
What brings up all these memories some 45 years later? As I watch the tragic events of the past few weeks unfold, I feel such sadness and my heart is broken by the hatred and violence that is so evident. The racism, indifference, disrespect, and ignorance that existed 45 years ago still exists today. I just turn on the television, the radio, or the computer to see the evidence. I can sign into any of my social media accounts, it does not matter which one because it is everywhere.
How is it, that in the year 2020, we are still dealing with these issues? As Christians, we are called by God, in one of the two greatest commandments, to love our neighbor. And not just our neighbor, but even our enemies. Jesus’ life was an example of love. He taught us that we are called to stand up to violence and hatred with love and mercy.
After going back and looking through some of the old episodes, I ran across one that was a little before my time. It was a hot day in the Neighborhood and Mr. Rogers had taken out a kiddie pool and filled it with water to cool his feet. His guest that day was Officer Clemmons, an African American police officer. Mr. Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to take off his socks and shoes and join him in the kiddie pool to cool his feet. The year was 1969 and like public water fountains, public transportation, and public schools, African Americans were segregated from public pools. Not only did they cool their feet side by side, in the same water, but then Mr. Rogers took it a step further and proceeded to dry Officer Clemmons’ feet with a towel. This immediately reminded me of another event in history.
That’s right, at the last supper Jesus washed and dried the feet of the twelve apostles, including those of Judas who was about to betray him. Jesus was showing us that love is sacrifice and service- that to love means understanding that we are all created in the image and likeness of God and that no one is more important than the other. On November 30th, 1986, Pope John Paul II addressed a crowd of people in Australia for the first time in his pontificate. “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song,” the Pope began. He continued, “We are not looking for a shallow joy but rather a joy that comes from faith, that grows through unselfish love, that respects the “fundamental duty of love of neighbor, without which it would be unbecoming to speak of Joy.” How can we speak of joy when so many of our brothers and sisters still suffer injustices.
As I reflect, I am reminded of many examples of people who have stood up to hatred, violence, and injustice with peaceful, non-violent action. People like Mr. Rogers, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus all understood that confronting violence with violence results in more violence. Instead they willingly stood up in the face of injustice in a loving, peaceful, and non-violent way, and the results of their efforts and their examples have changed the world.
We are also called by Jesus, and by the examples of these great people, to love God and our neighbor through our example of respect for the dignity of all, those who are facing injustice… and their enemies.
“Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.”