As a longtime fan of Fred Rogers, I am enthusiastically awaiting the release of this summer’s movie “You Are My Friend.” The film depicts the real-life tale of a reporter who is sent to interview Mr. Rogers for a feature story and finds his entire life changed for the better through his interactions with the gentle, thoughtful man.
Fred Rogers’ TV show was called “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and, indeed, Mr. Rogers was the best neighbor ever.
He was an ordained Presbyterian minister but saw a need for higher-quality children’s television. Instead of waiting for someone else to improve the situation, he set to work, using his many talents as a musician, writer and puppeteer.
Nearly everyone my age is familiar with Mr. Rogers’ red sweater and his theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
As a child, I sometimes watched his program. I can remember thinking, “This show moves pretty slowly,” but also realizing that observation was a welcome relief, not a criticism. Mr. Rogers gently and deliberately moved through his daily interactions with the people in his community, fed his fish, considered the adventures of a puppet kingdom and validated every viewer’s wonderfulness, just for being themselves.
I think a lot about what it means to be a neighbor, in the Christian sense. While I like the peppiness of the call-to-action hymns, I’ve never particularly related to being a Christian soldier, moving onward or otherwise. It’s too easy to confuse a war against sin with a war against sinners — who are, after all, my brothers, sisters and even myself. The whole point of Christ’s saving grace is there’s enough for everyone. No one has to lose. I’m a lover, not a fighter; a neighbor, not a soldier.
I rejoiced at the announcement in LDS General Conference that the home teaching and visiting teaching programs were being disbanded in favor of a more inclusive program of “ministering.”
Relief Society General President Sister Jean B. Bingham offered several examples of what ministering is supposed to look like: game nights, spending time getting to know people and authentic kindness. Instead of the assigned friendships of home and visiting teaching, it’s meant to be less formal and more adaptable to individual needs.
It seems to me we’re being called to be neighbors.
Lest anyone think I am putting down the old programs, let me point out the folks who were doing home and visiting teaching right were always genuinely ministering.
Like that time when I moved to Utah from Hawaii as a broke newlywed college student, just in time for my first winter with snow? My visiting teacher showed up on my porch with a pair of secondhand waterproof boots in my size.
I stammered my thanks, momentarily embarrassed.
“She thinks we’re poor!” I lamented to my husband later.
“We are,” he replied. “She also thinks you’re cold, and you are. Do the boots fit?”
“Perfectly,” I admitted, realizing I shouldn’t let my pride ruin a very thoughtful gift. My new friend’s generosity kept my feet warm and dry all winter.
And that other time, years later, when I had baby twins and the thought of leaving the house to grocery shop was hopelessly daunting? Another visiting teacher texted me from the store and asked for my list so she could be my family’s delivery service. She likely saved my family from scurvy that year, when getting fresh produce was a very complicated and unlikely errand.
And still another time, when a wildfire swept through my neighborhood, and the folks from down the street hadn’t yet evacuated, so they came and stood in my yard with a hose and soaked the remaining hot spots after the firefighters had left and probably saved my home? Oh, wait. They weren’t my visiting teachers or my home teachers or even people in my church congregation at all — they were my kind and generous neighbors — proving yet again it’s not where you sit on Sundays but how you respond to people’s needs that counts as ministering.
Both giving and receiving loving service bring opportunities to bask in God’s love for His children.
Let us approach this new call to minister in our communities with the sincere, accepting neighborliness of Mr. Rogers and the gentle power of the Savior.