Captivating might not be the first word to come to mind regarding a documentary about Fred Rogers — creator and host of the long-running children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — but Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is just that.
And more. For me, those 93 minutes were like a year of good therapy, a thick blanket of love and an inspiring testimony reflecting the reason we are here all wrapped in one.
The documentary opens with black-and-white footage of a young, soft-spoken Rogers — who would go on to become an ordained Presbyterian minister — enthralled by the potential of television as a tool to help children through difficulty. It feels like he is ahead of his time, sensing the power of the medium and how we are profoundly affected by (even becoming) what we see and hear from the small screen.
Equipped with an educated understanding of child development and genuine care for children, Rogers started on a journey that resulted in the creation of his Neighborhood, a place where he hoped children would feel safe even when worried or scared. He scripted shows to help children deal with topics rarely addressed in children’s programing, including death, divorce, the Vietnam War, civil rights and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
Rogers believed the space between the television screen and viewer was holy ground. It was his ministry and pulpit — but instead of a collar, as one interviewee puts it, he wore a sweater.
And he preached love.
The real power of this documentary is the persistent flow of testimonies that Rogers — who got up every morning before dawn to pray for anyone who asked — lived and breathed the command to love your neighbor.
Rogers believed everyone has inherent value. That belief was rooted in his faith: Each one of us is a son or daughter of God with worth and significance.
He believed the greatest thing we can do is help someone know he or she is loved and capable of loving. “Love is the root of everything,” he reflects.
He believed loving others could change the world. “We are all called,” he reflects at another point, “to be Tikkun Olam, repairers of creation.”
In the Huffington Post, Francois Clemmons, who performed the role of Officer Clemmons and had a close relationship with Rogers, reflects, “Fred was a very special man, and he gave us something we, as human beings, needed. Not something extraordinary that is rare, but love. And he had it in abundance. He taught us how incredibly available it is. It’s all around us. We just have to make the decision to give love or to give judgment and criticism. He led us to understand how simple and easy it was to make that choice, over and over again. There are so many people who tell the story of how choosing love changed their lives. It certainly changed mine.”
In the documentary, Rogers is described by those who knew him in myriad ways: a surrogate father, incomparable to anyone else they knew, an influence on who they became, a person who made goodness attractive, someone who wanted what was best for you and for you to be true to the best in yourself. “He loved you into loving,” says another.
As the credits scrolled, I couldn’t help but reflect that Rogers incarnated love. He looked like Jesus. That challenges and inspires me to live and breathe in God so I can live and breathe love.
Need a reminder of the power of love to change lives? Put Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in your queue.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.