When I was a child, Fred Rogers always made me feel that his home was my home, and I gladly spent countless afternoons there learning and listening and dreaming.
Sitting in a packed screening of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a much older, much more cynical me traveled back in time to that place, and for an hour I remembered what it felt like to be so welcomed and so filled with hope.
The moment that familiar front door opened, and I saw those twinkling eyes and heard his soft voice singing me into his living room again—the tears came easily. Embarrassed, I tried to quickly wipe them from my cheeks, but it would prove to be futile. I looked around the room and also noticed it was unnecessary: I was in good, tearful company.
I always knew how much I loved Mr Rogers. I just didn’t realize how much I missed him, how much this world misses him.
His quiet gentleness, his profound reverence for diverse humanity, his willingness to embrace the outsider, and his absolute refusal to shout in order to be heard—they’ve never seemed so foreign or so urgently needed.
I am finding myself terribly homesick for the neighborhood Mr Rogers built and made me feel a part of.
Hearing Fred Rogers speaking on screen nearly 50 years ago, his voice is prophetic, as if he was warning us of what we could become if weren’t careful. He lamented children being seen as consumers, abhorred people being treated as less-than, and he subversively resisted the bigotry that was so prevalent—and in all these areas, he gently but defiantly pulled us all toward a better way of being together.
Fred’s unspoken but very real Christian faith feels equally countercultural in these days of showy, empty religion and bullhorn-propelled damnation. It was a beautifully unassuming presence, existing in the background, solely as a means of him loving his neighbor as himself. It was a spirituality that didn’t need to announce itself loudly or impose its will on anyone; an ever-widening circle of inclusion that simply made room for everyone without caveat or condition.
It wasn’t defined by anything, other than leaving other people feeling seen and heard and loved—and it didn’t require a word to preach eloquently. I don’t see these kinds of Christians very much in the neighborhood anymore and it too, grieves me.
I think that’s why I cried visiting with my old friend: because seeing him again reminded me of a world that could and should be, and one that seems so terribly out of reach right now. It reminded me of a version of myself that I miss; someone who believed the best about himself and about the people he shared this life with. I cried because I realized how fractured we are and how exhausting this makes us.
This world desperately needs people like Fred Rogers.
It needs people who will walk with us through the nightmares of our days, not afraid to name how terrifying they are—while never relinquishing hope that day will break and that the goodness of people will shine with radiant brilliance.
It needs people who see the inherent beauty in human beings simply because they exist; in all their flawed, original, beautiful difference; who linger with them long enough to really hear their pain and their longings and their dreams—and to see them all as sacred ground.
This world needs people who know that we are one another’s neighbors and that we are at our very best when we endeavor to welcome each other and to love one another well.
It needs people who realize that a loveless religion isn’t worth practicing; that a faith that damages or divides probably isn’t worth holding on to; that if it needs to loudly declare itself—it’s likely fraudulent.
Most of all it needs people who understand that such things are not hokey or old-fashioned or passé—they are the prophetic, bold, way forward. They are the only method of saving our shared humanity. They are the only chance we have to hold on to our souls in days that would threaten to steal them.
If you’re disheartened by the cruelty in this world, by the absence of compassion you see, by how weaponized religion has become, by how loud the dividers have grown—consider that sadness an invitation.
It’s probably a good time to imagine a world that could and should be, and to get about the work of making that world. Let my old neighborhood friend Mr Rogers remind you how startling simple, yet how deceptively difficult that world-making can be.
Open your door widely, see the very best in people, and unashamedly sing them into your presence so that they know they are lovable.
Be a loving neighbor.
Grand Communications / The Fred Rogers Company
The original version of this Op Ed was published on johnpavlovitz.com