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Won't You Be My Neighbor?

The Rev. Rainey Dankel
July 25, 2018

“You should definitely see this movie.”  My colleague Patrick is urging me to see the documentary about Fred Rogers, creator and host of the long-running public television program.  “I LOVED Mr. Rogers when I was little,” he says.


I was past childhood when Mr. Rogers was on television, though I knew about it as a popular show.  I also remembered the spoofs of him as sentimental and too soft-spoken.


The documentary reveals the deep convictions of a man of faith, who saw his work with children as a form of ministry to which he was ordained by the Presbyterian Church.  As a proponent of nonviolence, he was disturbed by much of children’s programming that was noisy and filled with violent cartoons and that seemed more interested in selling sugar-filled cereals that in helping children grow up in healthy ways.


His ministry with children through his program is worth our attention, no matter what age we might be.  He created a neighborhood, filled with humans and puppets who faced real issues in life at the time, like segregated swimming pools and assassination of public figures.  He wrote songs to help engage imaginations.  He established routines, like putting on a sweater at the beginning of each show, reminding me of the role of vestments to signal that we are beginning sacred work together.


Most of all, Mr. Rogers wanted the children to know that they are loved and valued, just as they are.  He really listened to them.  He also let them know that it is natural to have feelings, and he encouraged them to share those feelings with him as a trusted adult.  The documentary showed how his childhood experiences with illness had led to his own feelings of anger, inadequacy, and shame.  He knew what it meant to ask, “Am I a mistake?” 


Mr. Rogers worked hard to help children express and manage their feelings in ways that would strengthen them emotionally and socially.  It is work that is drawing increasing attention today, particularly in helping young people deal with troubling events and forces around them.  It is work that I have seen up close through the Trinity Boston Foundation.  Mentors at the McCormack School help middle school students find healthy ways to manage the stresses of their lives.  What was once a single “re-regulation room” at the school has grown into “Peace Corner” in many classrooms, as teachers and students find value in using techniques to self-regulate their behavior and stay engaged in schoolwork.


God offers a resounding answer to the question, “Am I a mistake?”  God loves us infinitely—all of us—created in the divine image, created as expressions of divine love.  We come together as church to hear that affirmation and to offer it to each other. Church is our “re-regulation” space.


Won’t you be my neighbor?  Won’t you be someone whom I can trust, someone with whom I can risk being just myself?  Won’t you let me be a neighbor to you? I think we will both be better together.


Faithfully and fondly,






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