Mr. Rogers has quietly worked his way into my doctoral thesis on the importance of embodying Christ’s teachings in a culture of increasingly disembodied teaching content. We weren’t mesmerized by the profundity of his message as much as we fell in love with the messenger himself. Here’s a beautiful piece by Skye Jethani, and we’ve never needed Mr. Rogers-like leadership more than we do right now.
Fred Rogers didn’t fit the stereotype of a charismatic television preacher, but that is exactly what he was. His preaching was done with puppets, simple songs, and subtle storytelling rather than big hair, exciting sermons, or signs and wonders—but that doesn’t mean his ministry didn’t produce miraculous healing in both children and adults struggling with brokenness and anger. Deeply shaped by his faith in Christ, seminary educated, and ordained by the Presbyterian Church in 1963, Fred Rogers saw his PBS children’s program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as a ministry to a generation of wounded, frightened children and their families.
The casual observer of Fred Rogers’ daily television show, which ran from 1968 until 2001, might not have noticed the profound theological depth informing every aspect of the program. I certainly did not as a child in the late 1970s, but as an adult I was amazed to discover that Rogers designed the show around his doctrine. He often taught children about the value of different jobs which flowed from his theology of vocation. He used the language of “neighbor” because of its deep biblical roots particularly in Jesus’ teaching. Even the familiar show opening where Mr. Rogers enters, changes his shoes, and puts on his sweater was intended to be a formative liturgy to help children enter a different kind of sacred space.
Fred Rogers was also unafraid to tackle some of the most difficult personal and controversial social issues in American culture like war, racism, death, mental illness, and divorce. As a result, he was more pastoral and more prophetic than many pulpits in America. He understood and sympathized with the fear children felt in turbulent times, and brought each child the assurance that your feelings mattered and that you are loved exactly as you are.
In a recent biography by Shea Tuttle, I discovered another part of Fred Rogers’ ministry that went beyond his television show. In his daily times of Bible reading and prayer, Rogers would often feel what he called a “strong urge” to visit someone, and would then arrive unexpectedly at their door. In 1987 he traveled from his home in Pittsburgh to Baltimore to be with a girl he learned was having brain surgery. When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Rogers drove across down to the home of Francois Clemmons, an African-American actor on his program. Race riots had erupted outside his building. “I was upstairs in my apartment, but I was scared to death,” Clemmons recalled. But then Fred suddenly appeared.
Lisa Hamilton, who worked as a director on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, explained how Fred ministered to her young family during her 31-year-old husband’s battle with cancer. Hamilton thought her husband was recovering but woke up one morning to discover he had died in their bed during the night. With a 4-year-old son at home, Hamilton was overwhelmed. “I was really panicky,” she said, “And then the doorbell rang.” It was Fred Rogers.
“I was praying,” Fred explained, “and I felt you needed some help.” He didn’t know Hamilton’s husband had just died. He stayed with Hamilton and her son, wept with them over her husband’s body, and was the one to call the funeral home.
Fred Rogers died in 2003, but the last few years have seen a resurgence in his popularity through biographies, documentaries, and a 2019 film starring Tom Hanks. Some think it’s the product of a generation raised with his television show reaching adulthood. I suspect there is something more than nostalgia at work. Fred Rogers was a powerfully gifted minister who brought the calming, healing presence of Jesus to both children and adults. In our own turbulent times marked by aggression, anger, and division I think we all sense a need for more ministers like Fred Rogers.