Mister Rogers1We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.

———-

When I was very young most of my childhood Heroes wore capes, flew through the air or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.

            -Fred Rogers            

 

Now, I did not choose these quotes to inflate my position as Director of the Children and Youth program here at UUCC. Actually, I wanted to begin with those words to lead into a confession of sorts. I never wanted to become a teacher, let alone a Director for an entire congregation’s children and youth’s religious education program. No, I wanted to be someone “important”. When I was young, that meant a famous singer. I was 13 years old when the first season of American Idol came out and I was bound and determined to make it to one of those open casting calls and become an Idol for America. I would change the world, by the mere sound of my voice.

When that didn’t pan out, I played around with the idea of ER surgeon, saving lives and such. I was always on the lookout for something that no woman had accomplished. Amelia Earhart stole the whole flying thing and we could already vote. When I found out that women were not allowed to fight on the front lines in war I, and this is an embarrassingly true story, spent an my entire Jr. year of high school preparing myself to become an Army Ranger. Always the activist?

But the idea of teaching, especially children, just didn’t seem groundbreaking, life affirming or world changing enough. In fact, it was still something I was struggling with for the first couple of months of taking this job. When I announced my new position I was sure to emphasize DIRECTOR (because that sounds important) of Lifespan Faith Development, while shying away from the “youth and children” portion of my title.

It became a sort of conflict within myself, when I started having some pretty groundbreaking, life affirming and world changing moments… In the basement. In Rainbow Room. With a bunch of kids. And yes, I have children of my own and I’ve known for a long while that they are capable of profound revelations and divine moments… Remember that quote in the beginning? Not my kid, not my problem… or something like that.

I shared some experiences in our newsletter, The Focus, a few months back but I’d like to revisit them briefly:

One of our 4th graders, during a lesson on Love, made the profound statement to one of our dedicated teachers that “Love is like the North Star, It will always show you where you need to go”. One of my first weeks here, while sharing our joys and concerns, a third grader shared her joy of new glasses with the declaration that she was, and these are her exact words, “enjoying viewing life through a different lens”. A mother shared with me that upon a trip to the produce section of the grocery store, her 4 year old adamantly demanded that her mother “STOP!” Worried, the mother inquired of the child what could possibly be the matter. To which the 4 year old replied, “The lemons, Mom. Look at them! Aren’t they beautiful?” And they stood together in awe of the yellow fruit for a few moments before continuing on their day.

These moments leave me breathless. And now, after my summer with these inspiring beings and some help from my friend that we’ll get to here in a minute, I am truly honored to work with these little ones and my group of dedicated teachers as we all grow and inspire one another to live our Unitarian Universalist principals.

The teachings these children gave to me came first. It was easy to recognize the lessons of love, wonder and awe they had to offer me. Actually, that realization sent me into a period of serious self-doubt. Did they hire the right person? If I was being humbled and taught on a weekly basis by these children, what could I possibly have to offer these kids?

I focused on the logistical aspects of my job for the next couple of months. Finding teachers that (hopefully) had more to offer the children then I did. Scheduling nursery workers. Making sure we had enough assistants each Sunday. In fact, it was a very sterile and logistical problem that I was facing when I stumbled upon what would become one of the most influential periods of my life.

“We don’t do curriculum in the summer,” someone told me. “We usually just bring in people from the congregation or the community to teach on Sunday’s throughout the summer months. We like to give our teachers a break.”

Great! Except I didn’t really know a whole lot of people in the congregation… or the community for that matter. So I needed a hook. Something to draw people in to help.

I went to a Renaissance module, a training for religious educators, in Tennessee. It was there that I heard from a colleague the program they had done for their religious education the previous summer. I only heard the title, “Won’t you be my Neighbor”. As soon as I heard the title, even though I had seen maybe 5 full episodes in my life, I was immediately singing the theme song to Fred Rogers television program in my head “Won’t you please, wont you please… please won’t you be my neighbor”

WHAT A HOOK!?!?

I ran with it. I came home that next week, with 4 weeks to go until Summer and announced our “summer curriculum”… more like Marcie’s summer advertising scheme to get our neighbors in the congregation to volunteer to do something for an hour each Sunday to fill in an RE schedule…” But I will never forget making that announcement.

When I announced that our summer curriculum would be calling upon the late Fred Rogers invitation of …“Won’t you Be My Neighbor” A reverence spread throughout the congregation. I remember a woman, I won’t embarrass her, Grabbing her chest with an audible “uhhm” And I thought, “We’re on to something here.” We filled over half of the summer classes that day.

I didn’t really understand what happened. I wasn’t complaining, but like I said, I had only watched a handful of episodes of Mister Rogers as a child. I remember liking them well enough. But I didn’t really remember why. I ordered a couple of episodes off of amazon.

It was the next week that Birgitt mistakenly announced that the theme for our summer camp would be Mister Rogers. My committee and I hadn’t actually decided on anything… or even really discussed it for that matter, but the day our “Mister Rogers Summer Camp” was announced, I had 5 separate parents inquire about camp registration.

So… I watched the episodes. Three of them, to be exact. And I have something embarrassing to tell you. They made me cry. Literally. When Mister Rogers signed off each episode with his signature, “You’ve made this day a special day… just by being you” He was talking to me. And I GOT IT. I understood the reaction to anything Mister Rogers based. Because I immediately loved this man… But what I still didn’t quite get was WHY!?! I shared my two older boy’s reaction to “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” in another Focus letter…

I had my 6 and 7 year old sit down with me to watch an episode last night. They watched without interrupting, almost unblinkingly, for the entire 22 minute program. When it was finished I asked them what they thought. After a moment of genuine reflection, my oldest replied, “Well, it was kind of boring… But I liked it. It was a good boring. Can we watch another one?” My youngest, who has always struggled with a quick temper piped in, “Yeah, let’s watch another one. I liked what he said about angry feelings”

It was official. This show passed the ultimate test. Keeping the attention of two energetic boys for two back-to-back episodes. But WHY!? Why was I, my children, and hundreds upon thousands of people throughout the shows run completely enthralled by watching this cardigan darning gentleman TIE HIS FREAKING SHOES? It was something I really wanted to understand

At the risk of sounding crazy, I became obsessed. I ordered a one hundred episode package of Mister Rogers Neighborhood… for my 15 month old son, Marlo of course… I went to the library and checked out every book written by or about Fred Rogers. I read them. All of them. I became a scholar of Mister Rogers’s theology, if you would.

And as the only Fred Rogers academic currently in the North West region, I feel compelled to share with you my findings. A brief synopsis of my own understanding of Mister Rogers incredible success and legacy:

Fred Roger’s original life plan was to attend seminary after he graduated with an undergraduate degree in music composition. But during spring break of his senior year, he saw a television for the first time. And it wasn’t the potential of the fledgling medium that struck him; it was the abuse. “I got into television,” he told journalist Amy Hollingsworth in an interview, “because I saw people throwing pies at each other’s faces, and that to me was such demeaning behavior. And if there’s anything that bothers me, it’s one person demeaning another”

He felt people deserved better. Namely, he felt that that children deserved, and desperately needed better messages directed at them.

He felt it was his calling, his responsibility. On page 116 of Amy Hollingsworth’s Book, “The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers” She recalls from Fred’s memorial service, a tape from Fred Rogers earliest demonstrations of advocacy for this vulnerable group (pg 116)

One of the most moving moments of his memorial service (in May 2003) was a tape of Fred’s appearance before the U.S. Senate Sub committee on Communications in 1969, when a twenty-million-dollar grant for public television was hanging in the balance.

Mist Rogers was little known then because his program had just begun airing nationally the year before He would appear before Senator John Pastore, a Democrat from Rhode Island who, in addition to his distinction as the first Italian American elected to the U.S. Senate, was also well known for his brusque and unyielding nature.

Enter a young Fred Rogers with Slick Black hair and a tidy suit, not yet an American icon.

“Senator Pastore, this is a philosophical statement,” Fred said, pointing to a text copy of the essay he had submitted, “and would take about ten minutes to read, so I’ll not do that.” His voice reflected the slow and measured cadence that would soon become synonymous with his name, just the sort of characteristic that would have annoyed a man like Senator Pastore. “One of the first things that a child learns in a healthy family is trust, and I trust what you’ve said, that you’ll read this. It’s very important to me; I care deeply about children, my first—“

Senatore Pastore didn’t wait for Fred to finish: “Will it make you happy if you read it?” Even without seeing the footage, you can hear the Condescension in his voice.

“I’d—just like to talk about it, if it’s all right—“

Senator Pastore cut him off again with a brisk, “Fine.”

“This is what I give, Fred continued. “I give an expresson of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘ You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.’ I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service.”

After a long pause, Senator Pastore responded, “I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy. This is the first time I’ve had goose bumps in the last two days.”

“Well, I’m grateful,” Fred answered calmly and sincerely, “not only for you goose bumps for your interest in our kind of communication.”

Fred’s program received the twenty-million-dollar grant

So the first, and most notable quality of Mister Rogers is that he didn’t set out to become some grand success. He saw a problem… and set out to fix it. It should be noted that he was given special ordination as a Presbyterian Minister with his pulpit being Public Television.

I don’t think of myself as somebody who’s famous. I’m just a neighbor who comes and visits children; [I] happen to be on television. But I’ve always been myself. I never took a course in acting I just figured that the best gift you could offer anybody is your honest self, and that’s what I’ve done for lots of years. And thanks for accepting me exactly as I am.

-Fred Rogers response when asked if he liked being famous                                      

 (The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, Amy Hollingsworth, pg 52)

 

Which brings me to second point of Fred Rogers success: The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.

Another quote by Fred Rogers says, “Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.”

I studied acting for a couple of years. The first and arguably the last lesson you ever need to know about acting is this: Be honest. The ability to find your own truth within any character is what creates an Oscar winning performance. This seems like an easy enough task. But there are literally thousands of actors in Hollywood, and not thousands of Oscar winners. It is an incredibly difficult thing to find, your inner truth. And to then find that within others? It takes an incredible balance of maturity, and raw vulnerability all at the same time. This answers the question of Fred Roger’s ability to captivate any age audience in his Neighborhood program. He was just being himself. I think this also explains children’s immediate and unanimous approval of Mister Rogers. There is no purer honesty than the innocence of a child. They can sense the same quality in their friend Fred Rogers and feel comforted by it. It is also interesting to note that some adult’s first instinct is to ridicule or poke fun of Mister Rogers’s mannerisms and simplicity. Fred’s honesty can be uncomfortable to adults who have somewhere along the way lost that truth.

Fred Rogers believed the biggest culprit of this loss of honesty with one’s self is society’s insistence of masking our feelings.

The Truth Will Make Me Free

A Song by Fred Rogers

What if I were very, very sad

And all I did was smile?

I wonder after awhile

What might become of my sadness?

 

What if I were very, very angry

And all I did was sit

And never think about it?

What might become of my anger?

 

Where would they go,

And what would they do,

If I couldn’t let them out?

 

Maybe I’d fall, maybe get sick

Or doubt.

 

But what if I could know the truth

And say just how I feel?

I think I’d Learn a lot that’s real

About freedom.

 

The majority of his program was dedicated to helping children acknowledge, process and express all of our feelings, especially the negative ones, and channel them into healthy outlets. I’ll share one more song written by Mister Rogers that resonated with my son the first episode he watched of Mister Rogers

What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?

            A song by Fred Rogers

 

            What do you do with the mad that you feel

            When you feel so mad you could bite?

            When the whole wide world

            Seems oh, so wrong

            And nothing you do seems very right?

            What do you do? Do you punch a bag?

            Do you round up friends for a game of tag?

            Or see how fast you go?

 

            It’s great to be able to stop

            When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong.

            And be able to do something else instead

            And think this song:

            I can stop when I want to,

            Can stop when I wish,

            Can stop, stop, stop anytime.

            And what a good feeling to feel like this,

            And know that the feeling is really mine.

            Know that there’s something deep inside

            That helps us become what we can,

            For a girl can be someday a woman

            And a boy can be someday a man.

He understood that if we taught children early on to express themselves in a healthy way, it would reduce and eliminate some hurtful, damaging and sometimes violent behaviors.

And finally, the point that is most easily visible and celebrated was Fred Rogers’s capacity to love. His obvious compassion and empathy for humankind are unequivocal. His effort to love everyone unconditionally is his legacy. But it wasn’t just a gift he had… He understood the constant work it took. He said himself that, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now”

He was always striving to love his fellow men and women.

Time Madigan shares a story of attending a church service with Fred in his book, I’m Proud of You:

It was midway through the service when the pastor asked if anyone wished to publicly share their joys or concerns. Several in the congregation rose to speak of a relative or friends suffering in some way. Others stood to give thanks for a successful surgery, or a new baby, or a promotion at work. The old woman behind us at the back of the church spoke last. She began with a vague complaint about the Gulf War, then took up against Vietnam, and the president, and members of Congress and generals, and anyone else who, in her mind, might have something to do with the death of American soldiers. The diatribe went on for at least five minutes. People throughout the church began to squirm in the pews. At the pulpit, the pastor shifted from foot to foot and stared down at his notes in embarrassment. I stifled an impulse to turn and look back at the woman, who, as the minutes passed, began to seem deranged. When her long rant finally ended, there was an audible sigh of relief in the church. Most in the congregation were clearly mortified, but not the man sitting next to me. The moment the old woman finished and the service resumed, Fred leaned over and whispered in my ear.

“The poor dear,” he said. “You can be sure that at some time in her past, she suffered a great personal loss because of war.”

After the service, Fred hurried from his pew, found the old woman, where she stood alone in the back of the church, said a few tender words, and gave her a hug.

Fred Rogers knew the importance of listening. He said, “Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors

Mr. Rogers was such an intent listener that he made a point of mentioning out loud when he was feeding his fish on his show after he got a letter from a family whose blind daughter asked him to do so, because she couldn’t tell if the fish were being fed.

Love, Honesty, Expressing ourselves. Seeing a need and acting upon it… We can all learn something from our friend and neighbor Mister Rogers.

I began my summer with much self-doubt and insecurities… I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of teaching our children, a task that I had greatly discounted over the years and with my new comprehension of the importance of this calling, was only now realizing just how much I had to learn. I was maybe even a little envious of this Mister Rogers. A man who’s name alone could inspire a congregation to fill an entire summer teaching roster in one sitting… Throughout my Journey I spent some wishing Mister Rogers as my Grandfather… And at one point I decided to spend my days actually trying to BE Mister Rogers.

But When Mister Rogers ended each episode with his signature sign off of… “You’ve make this day special day, just by being you”… He believed that with his whole heart. He wanted, more than anything, for everyone to believe that we all have something important and unique to offer. It is my hope that we, as a community, can inspire each other, including…no… especially our children, to know that we ALL make this world better and a little more special just by being ourselves.

Journalist Tyler Huckabee beautifully recounts Fred Rogers Emmy acceptance speech:

 

If you haven’t seen it, Fred Rogers’ acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Emmys is a fascinating watch. After being introduced as “the best neighbor any of us has ever had,” by Tim Robbins, Mr. Rogers takes the stage amidst uproarious applause. A humble, gray Presbyterian minister being heralded as a hero on television’s flashiest night—he sticks out, not just by virtue of his age, but also a sort of sheepish grace. This man does not have a false bone in his body.

What happens next is probably singular among award shows. Mr. Rogers steps up to the microphone, and issues an order. “Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. I’ll watch the time.”

At first people chuckle a little—is he serious? But as he looks down at his watch, you can see that he clearly is, and the hall falls silent. And then, as the camera pans the room, you see that he’s working that old magic of his. People are biting their lips. Mascara is running. It took this gentle, kindly host of a children’s program a mere 10 seconds to strip a television award show of its pomp and circumstance, injecting a moment of real, beautiful feeling into it. Speedy delivery, indeed.

In the spirit of Mister Rogers, I ask that we all now join for a moment of silence for prayer, meditation or reflection of the music and words we have heard here today, as well as the people who have influenced our own lives and helped us become who we are.

 

Thank you. And now, if you will rise to the height of your physical and spiritual beings and sing the theme of Mister Rogers Neighborhood with me, it would absolutely make my day.

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

 

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

 

It’s a neighborly day in this beautywood,

A neighborly day for a beauty,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

 

I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,

I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

 

So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,

Since we’re together, we might as well say,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Won’t you be my neighbor?

 

Won’t you please,

Won’t you please,

Please won’t you be my neighbor?