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Along the Journey  |  

Good Neighbors

March 20th marks the birthday of a teacher who continues to captivate the collective imagination more than two decades after his death – Fred Rogers.   

Most know of Mister Rogers’ credentials as an early childhood educator, on daily display in his television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; few know that he was also an ordained Presbyterian minister. 

His understanding of “neighbor” and “neighborhood” was deeply informed by his New Testament studies and commitments as a person of faith. 

As one CTS student recently reflected to me, “I think he is our one and only – or at least the primary – Presbyterian saint.”   

Fred Rogers received his MDiv degree in the early 1960s and was ordained soon after to a ministry of children and families through television. 

A closer look at his five decades of work reveals a deep connection between being an effective teacher and being a “good neighbor.”  

Good neighbors – and good teachers – are willing to step out of their comfort zones and take risks.   

Fred Rogers nearly missed his calling as a television host; he initially wanted to go into a more traditional form of ministry. 

But on a visit to his parents’ home, he was appalled by what he saw on TV – pratfalls, chaos, and mean-spirited humor. 

As he told a CNN interviewer, “I went into television because I hated it so.”   

Rather than dismiss the troublesome medium, he saw its power to form children and wanted to leverage it for good.

Through this platform, he highlighted the rich inner lives of children.

He taught them and their parents that feelings are mentionable and manageable and created a world in which all were welcome. 

His hallmark approach in speaking with guests, especially children, was to start with a question or the phrase, “I wonder.” 

As Fred once said, “Our society is much more interested in information than wonder, in noise rather than silence…And I feel that we need a lot more wonder and a lot more silence in our lives.”   

Mister Rogers was a teacher unafraid of the limits of his knowledge and knew that the key to expanding those limits was in relationship. 

This means that good neighbors – and good teachers – meet people where they are.   

In one beloved episode of his program, he talks with a young boy, Jeff Erlanger, about what it’s like to use an electric wheelchair. 

He sits on a porch step, eye level with Jeff, and slows the conversation down to a child’s pace, asking Jeff to tell his story. 

These simple gestures communicate clearly where the center of wisdom is in this teaching moment. 

The role of the teacher was not to talk but to make a hospitable space for that wisdom. 

As he once said, “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.” 

Good neighbors – and good teachers – have integrity.   

“Integrity” shares the same root as the verb “to integrate” – to bring together into a coherent whole. 

Those who had the privilege of knowing Fred say that he was the “real deal” – that the person he was in everyday life matched his television persona. 

Being a good neighbor wasn’t something he did; it was integral to his identity and to his understanding of what it meant to be a person of faith. 

This kind of predictability allowed those around him to feel seen, valued, and integrated into the community he created through his relationships and his program.  

He regularly “preached” a gospel of kindness and being a neighbor without ever using traditional theological language. 

The liturgical arc of each episode – from robing in vestments to the fish food eucharist to the breaking open of the stories and the hymnody – unfolded within a vision of “neighborhood” that was both child-sized and a glimpse of his vision for how things should and could be. 

The veil between the every day and the mystery, between his living room and the Land of Make-Believe, was regularly crossed – including the breaking of the fourth wall, as the children at home felt seen, valued, and included in the Neighborhood. 

The Neighborhood right-sized the world for children, making it manageable (like big feelings!) while securing their cherished place in it. 

Imagine with me

Every so often, popular culture experiences a resurgence of interest in Mister Rogers and his legacy. 

The same has been true of late. 

Perhaps it’s because in a cultural climate marked by deep polarization and lines drawn between people, there’s a longing for kindness and lines of connection. 

Perhaps in a world where the problems seem so huge and intractable – war, climate change, poverty – people can wrap their minds around what it might look like to be a good neighbor, healing the world one interaction at a time.

“Imagine,” he said, “what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.” 

Imagine, I suggest, what our classrooms and churches would be like if we treated each other as neighbors, too. 

To learn more about Columbia’s Center for Lifelong Learning, click HERE.

Dr. Helen Blier is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. She is deeply knowledgeable about lifelong learning for ministers, church leaders, and theologically curious laity, having served in the field for over ten years.

Along the Journey