July 06, 2018

A Man’s Ministry: Fred Rogers’ Journey in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

By Tim Hruszkewycz *
Fred Rogers, 1969. Credit: Public domain
Fred Rogers, 1969. Credit: Public domain

My wife has recently re-evaluated me as a liberal hippie. I suppose this happens in relationships. New political issues arise, and married couples disagree from time-to-time. I feel like I have to preface my review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” with this caveat. If my wife thinks I’m too progressive, I’m sure that some of my readers out there will agree. But to review the documentary about Fred Rogers, I probably need to frontload this information. Like many documentarians, director Morgan Neville made his movie not only to inform, but to challenge. The issue is that this time, he offers challenges to our faith.

When I saw the trailer on Facebook for the first time, I knew that it was going to tug at some heartstrings. The trailer doesn’t spoil anything. You should probably watch it. I recommend just a small handful of tissues before clicking “Play.”

Unsurprisingly, the film documents the life of Fred Rogers and his life in children’s television. The movie establishes quite clearly that Rogers did not care about the spotlight. He didn’t consider himself a celebrity, nor did he create “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for financial gain. Rather, this man saw a deficit in children’s television and wanted to meet the emotional needs of children who ordinarily absorbed television as future consumers.

 A sad child himself, Fred Rogers saw television as an opportunity to let kids know that they were loved, regardless of their situations. But what  many people may not know is that Mister Rogers was actually Reverend Rogers.

Fred Rogers was an ordained minister.

I know that this is the Catholic News Agency. I think we would all take it as a big win if he was actually Fr. Rogers, who presided over the parish of Our Lady de Plaza Sésamo. But, in fact, he was a Presbyterian minister. He went to seminary, which earned him the title of “Reverend.”
 
But putting all of that aside, Fred Rogers was a man of faith. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” isn’t a story of him putting that faith aside or losing that faith in the service of PBS. Rather, it is the story of how Fred Rogers used his faith to evangelize everyday without making it about being holier-than-thou. This isn’t me putting some kind of spin on the movie to tie it into a Catholic News Agency article. The movie discusses his faith and ministry in depth. Fred Rogers used television to evangelize a message of love to children on a regular basis.
 
Mr. Rogers made over a thousand episodes of television and each one focused on the emotional complexities that children dealt with every day. When a parent didn’t know how to tell a child that he or she was valuable or that they were loved, Reverend Rogers did so instead. I told you: this is a movie that requires a decent amount of tissues.

But I did preface this article with the warning that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” deals with some issues that might challenge us. So, here’s that:

One of the show’s goals was to help kids deal emotionally deal with current events. His first episode dealt with the Vietnam War. I get squeamish when children’s programming introduces political issues into its commentary. It’s icky because I feel like it can get manipulative. But Rogers realized something profound early in his ministry. He didn’t tell kids what to do or how to act. But he did say that it was okay to have feelings about real things. He knew that kids were going to be hearing scary things on the television or from the grown-ups around them and his focus was to have kids advocate for themselves that they were scared. He let them know that scary things don’t have to be bottled up and that –even if no one in their lives were willing to care about what they thought –Mister Rogers always would.

And this is where I fell in love with Mister Rogers.

Fred Rogers always seemed way too cheery. The movie addresses this. No one in the world really acts like Fred Rogers. No one talks that way. For as controlled and ideal as Fred Rogers was, he still dealt with real world issues.

One of the actors on his show was a homosexual. As a minister, Rogers regularly interacted and worked with a gay man. His faith and his work seemed to be at odds. But Rogers did something that I wish that more people of faith would do. Fred Rogers privately evangelized his co-worker through love. He worked side-by-side with this man, and for two years, he let him know that he loved him. Fred Rogers let his friend know what he believed, but he still wholeheartedly loved this man.

I think that phrase “love” is often misused. I know that “love” is often confused for “tolerated.” If and when you watch this movie, I want you to see the love that this man felt by Fred Rogers. Fred Rogers saw his co-worker as a child of God, and he let him know that every time he saw him.

I can’t deny that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” might be polarizing. As uplifting as this movie is, and as positively as it portrays Fred Rogers’ faith, it does take some shots at extreme conservatives. This was his life. He dealt with people from all walks and he told them that they were special. The film takes a shot at Fox News. I’m not the biggest Fox News fan in the world, but I can see how some people might not love that part of the movie. It is brief, but it is there.

There will be few movies –even more so with documentaries –that are completely apolitical. But the message in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” stresses one thing that should resonate with us, and something that we, as Catholics, should be promoting: that every person has value because they were created by God.

That’s such a great message. Considering that I let my kids watch the garbage that Rogers rallied against, I need the reminder that everything we do should be reminding our children that they are special because they were created in the image and likeness of God.

I knew that I was going to be emotionally moved by this movie. It’s a great film that is presented lovingly by family and friends of Fred Rogers. As a kid, I remember watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” before I outgrew it, and its threadbare production values. My parents always let me know that I was loved, so Mister Rogers served his purpose, confirming my validity outside of simple parental affirmation. But this movie let me see the real value that Fred Rogers offered to the world.

Not all kids had my parents’ ability to let their kids know that they were loved. Fred Rogers filled that void as best as he could. Mister Rogers was a man of faith and he preached in a way that never made anyone feel small or defensive. Everyone he met, he saw his or her value.  This man, while not Catholic, is a model for love.

And he did all that in a brightly colored sweater and sneakers.

Tim Hruszkewycz is a high school English and film teacher at Villa Madonna Academy in Villa Hills, KY. He also co-hosts the Literally Anything podcast at literallyanything.net and blogs about film

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.