The inspiring example of Fred Rogers

Here’s my December column for the Holland Sentinel…

Applications to Presbyterian seminaries have surged in the last week, following the release of “A Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood,” a new movie about Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian pastor best known for his popular PBS television series “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Admissions offices at several Presbyterian seminaries have reported that they are struggling to keep up with a record number of inquiries. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Anthony Rivera, long-time director of admissions at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the Presbyterian school where Fred Rogers received his master of divinity degree.

Just kidding. I’m making this up. The last I heard, applications are trending down at most seminaries, not just the Presbyterian ones.

But I have a good imagination, the kind Fred Rogers would have encouraged in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I can easily imagine that Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Fred Rogers would lead some young men and women to consider Presbyterian ministry—just as the investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post, back in the 1970s, led to a surge of applications to schools of journalism. Just as the soaring stock market in the 1990s led to a surge of applications to business schools.

Woodward and Bernstein were inspiring because they showed us how someone could make a difference in the world through, well, dogged reporting about a corrupt presidency. A decade or so later, getting an MBA seemed like just the ticket for creating substantial personal wealth in an ever-expanding national economy. Remember the beloved words of Gordon Gekko in the movie “Wall Street”? “Greed, for lack of a better word,” he said, “is good.” Very inspiring.

The essential humanity of Fred Rogers was also inspiring, but for a different reason. I would like to think that his life and example would lead others to pursue lives of ministry. I wept last year when I saw the Fred Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” And I can’t wait to see the new movie with Tom Hanks. Fred Rogers made me proud, for about 94 minutes, to be a Presbyterian pastor.

But I wonder if anyone will be inspired to be like him, to model their lives after his, to adopt his values as their own.

What the documentary—and, more recently, the movie—show us about Fred Rogers is how unfailingly nice he was. Nice by itself is okay, but not all that inspiring. Fred Rogers was also good, decent, compassionate, and caring. Maybe most compelling, he was authentic. When a reporter asked him if he thought of himself as “a star,” and then asked if he thought the Mister Rogers character was “a star,” he seemed confused by the questions. He and the character he played on television were the same person. He was the same person at home and in the TV studio and everywhere else. Authenticity is not a trait we see much anymore, and the world needs more authentic people.

Of course, you don’t go to seminary to learn how to be authentic. You go to learn what is true, the truths that Fred Rogers demonstrated both in private and on camera. Truths like every person is a child of God and deserves to be treated that way.

Fred Rogers never shied away from difficult subjects. He talked to children about death and divorce, trauma and grief. He was able to do that not only because he had an extraordinary gift for talking to children, but also because he knew what he believed. If you don’t know what you believe about death, for example, how can you talk about it to children, or anyone one else, with clarity and confidence?

In one episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Fred Rogers sat at a kitchen table, looked straight into the camera and began talking about divorce: ”Did you ever know any grown-ups who got married and then later they got a divorce?” he asked. He paused briefly, and then said, ”Well, it is something people can talk about, and it’s something important.” You want to listen when someone talks like that, don’t you?

Another time, Fred Rogers said, ”The world is not always a kind place.” That wasn’t just his opinion. That was a profound theological claim, a way of looking at the world, a belief system that helps us to make sense of life. Fred Rogers was a theologian—and, to me, the very best kind. He told the truth in ways children can understand, in ways that still make me weep with joy.

Before every broadcast, according to one story, Fred Rogers would recite a short prayer: “Let some word that is heard be thine.” This is the prayer that every preacher—Presbyterian and every other kind—prays before preaching.

(Photo: Along the Camino Frances in northern Spain are hundreds of these yellow arrows, often with the distinctive Camino scallop shell, indicating the way to Santiago de Compostela.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.
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