Monday night I’m sitting in the Princess Theatre holding back tears until I finally give in. The battle starts with the opening scenes and is lost long before the closing credits. Nearly all of us watching are hesitant to leave when the movie ends. We don’t want to break the spell. We don’t want to lose what we’ve been given. We’ve just watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
The story of Fred Rogers’ unlikely rise to stardom is a well-crafted homage to simple goodness. Filled with beautifully animated cut-scenes and brilliant editing, this is the best of what a documentary can be. Here is a story about art that becomes its own masterpiece.
As I’ve reflected on why this story is impacting so many people – why it has left a mark on me – I come back to one word. Goodness.
Kindness has been the word most linked with this film, but for me, there’s something even deeper at work. Mister Rogers embodied an unflappable belief in the goodness of this world and every person in it.
“Love is at the root of everything. All learning. All relationships. Love or the lack of it”
Fred Rogers says this early on in the film, looking earnestly towards us. Something in his eyes reveals that he has experienced both love and the lack of it. We find out later in the film how insecure Mister Rogers has been of his own ability to make a difference. How he was bullied. How he doubts the man in the sneakers and cardigan. How he wants to be loved himself.
I entered the film thinking I’d want to be more like Fred Rogers. I left it knowing how alike we are already.
Fred Rogers was an ordained minister. I’ve earned my theology degree. Rogers had a ministry to a specific group of people – children. He fulfilled that mission through an unlikely occupation – television. I’ve wrestled with my own ministry and the resistance to fulfilling it by working in a church. My people are artists and creatives. I’ve started an art gallery. I’m now a musician. But my vocation is always to love the people around me as best I can.
I wrestle with this vocation often. I doubt it daily. I feel inadequate. Incapable of giving and receiving love. It seems I’m in good company with Fred Rogers.
That, and we both like bowties.
I’ve been wrestling with my faith this past year. Longer if I’m honest. There is so much I don’t like about Christianity. There are so many reasons to walk away. Right reasons. Reasons even Jesus would agree with, I think. But something holds me in. I find something in Jesus that I don’t find anywhere else.
This film helped me remember what draws me to Jesus. It is goodness. Love. Kindness beyond all reason.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbour as your self.”
It’s easy to talk about the power of love. “All you need is love” was popularized by the fab four and has become a toothless pop platitude.
The love in this film has teeth. Here is a love that can welcome a gay black man in the American sixties. Here is a love that can speak to children about divorce, war, racism and assassination with dignity and respect. Here is a love that sees the best in others. This is good love.
There is one scene that impacted me most in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Fred Rogers’ son recalls an interview Rogers did with an Ape. We see the strange encounter unfold like a magic trick. There is a pure wonder in Fred’s eyes as the Ape signs “I love you” to him. Fred Rogers, at this moment, becomes a child. In the theatre we were laughing and crying – that strange mixup of emotions we don’t know what to do with.
I can’t explain the impact of this scene except to say that it is transcendent. This may sound a little spooky to you, but here is what I believe. That ape recognized something in Fred Rogers. He saw goodness and was drawn to it as one of God’s creatures. He wanted to connect with the goodness he saw in Fred Rogers, because goodness is bigger than all of us and beyond all of us.
In the Gospels, respectable people tell Jesus not to waste his time on children. Send them away, they say. He rebukes these grownups. Unless we all become like children, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
There is something big that I believe. I think. Most of the time. There is a good God above and beyond me. He is calling us all home. She wants more than anything for us to be kind to one another.
Faith and life can be this simple.
Fred Rogers seemed to ‘get’ goodness. In these loudly broken times, we are longing for goodness. Some of our tears in that theatre mourned a loss of goodness. Some of our tears hoped for its return. Most of our tears were beyond comprehension – a direct response of the spirit to goodness itself. To love.
If you want to know why on earth I’d want anything to do with Christianity in 2018, watch this film.
If you want to understand the complex combination of love and the lack of it that drives me, look to Fred Rogers.
If you want to remember that the world is a beautiful place – even now – spend a couple of hours in Mister Rogers Neighbourhood.