Commentary

Won't you be my neighbor?

Originally Appeared in : 9814-7/5/18

I was fortunate enough to recently view the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about Fred Rogers, children’s television personality and ordained Presbyterian minister. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ was a favorite show of my children, and I expected the documentary to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane. And it was. 

 

What I didn’t expect was how profoundly the documentary would resonate with the current state of our country. 

 

Fred Rogers spent his life and ministry devoted to respecting and acknowledging children, particularly their emotions and the challenges they faced in daily life. His show gave children a way to safely and openly discuss difficult subjects and emotions. 

 

In his programming, Rogers drew from what was happening in the news to reach out to children who were aware of frightening events but may not have loving adults to assure them that their concerns and emotions were valid. After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Rogers did a segment on assassination.

 

He did segments on the Vietnam War, on death, dealing with anger, and other subjects adults find difficult to broach with youngsters.

 

While helping the children, Rogers was also helping adults find a way to talk with their own children by using his example. The overarching theme of all Fred Rogers did was to teach children (and adults) that they matter, and they are loved just the way they are. 

 

His show was gentle, slow-paced, and low budget. He cared most about engaging viewers, not through gimmicks and action, but through relationship. In my own family, I can attest to how the slow-paced style of the show engaged my children because their anticipation would build to find out which color cardigan Rogers would choose from his closet at the opening of the show. This was excitingt. 

 

As in all things, Rogers was deliberate in his determination to understand children, respect them, and provide them a way to articulate and cope with difficult emotions. 

 

Of course, Fred Rogers had his detractors. Comedians ridiculed him. Some conservatives blame his loving acceptance mantra for producing the “trophy generation”: young people whom they say feel entitled just because they think they are special for merely showing up. A hate group even protested across the street from his memorial service. 

 

Through the scorn and ridicule, Rogers remained resolute, never failing to put the well-being of children first. So, it is bitterly ironic that the well-being of children on our Mexican border was, in fact, being disregarded, even deliberately sacrificed, on the altar of political expediency as I watched a film based on Fred Rogers’ concern for all little ones. 

 

What would Fred Rogers, a lifelong Republican, say about the practice of tearing children from their parents’ arms without explanation or the assurance their families would be reunited? What would Rogers say about the emotional trauma these children experience? 

 

Would Fred Rogers blame the parents who are, for the most part, fleeing violence from their home countries? No, he would advocate for a compassionate response to their desperation. 

 

His entire life was devoted to evangelization, and he used television as his method. As an ordained Presbyterian minister, he believed what we Catholics also believe: that every human being is created in the image of God and deserving of dignity. 

 

What could be more antithetical to that belief than treating desperate people like criminals? What could be more antithetical to that belief than dehumanizing people by using words like “infest” (what bugs or rats do) when referring to them and their attempts to seek asylum. Even the phrase “catch and release,” which is used frequently when referring to our immigration practices, connotes animal or marine life, not dealing with human beings. 

 

Our bishops have been speaking out forcefully against the mistreatment at our border, and as a result of public outrage, some of the worst atrocities have ended. But as I write this, hundreds of children have not been returned to their parents, nor do the parents have any word from them. As I write this, thousands of children and parents are expected to be put in detention centers when room is available. 

 

In the Rogers documentary, the concept of neighborhood was discussed. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was meant to be a loving, supportive place where all children and adults were welcome and treated as children of God. As I watched his gentle, loving presence on screen, my heart ached. Fred Rogers would not recognize the kind of neighbors we have become.

 

Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at maryhoodhart@gmail.com.

Go to top