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Sneakers and Cardigans

July 9, 2011

Eliot Daley from Huffington Post has published an article on Fred Rogers’ (remember Mr. Rogers Neighborhood on public television?) relationship with God and the way his faith was reflected in his work and his relationships with people:

The content of the series explored a full array of the developmental tasks facing preschoolers and fostered their creativity and imagination. But any given program often began in some worrisome place where Fred knew the child might be found — say, dwelling in anxiety about being displaced in his or her parents’ affection by the newly arrived baby sibling, or fearing the possibility of being separated from one’s parents. They began, in other words, in the very kinds of worrisome situations that might prompt an adult to turn to prayer.

Fred engages the child right there at the point of pain or fear, in a linked series of initiatives by him and exquisitely anticipated responses by the young viewer. Fred introduces a thought or object, the child at home is moved to think or feel something, then Fred makes a further move based on the child’s likely response, followed by another response, and yet a further move … By the end of the twenty-eight minutes and thirty-eight seconds of each program, the child is in a different place, a better place. And still right beside Mister Rogers, who has gently brought the child over there.

Fred also told each child, “You are special”. Fred understood that God endows every person with unique gifts, and it was his personal mission to nurture both the gift and the child’s awareness that she or he did indeed possess the gift. For Fred, life was all about bringing out the best any individual has within them — within them, but oftentimes not yet fully realized. Not-fully-realized is obviously the case for preschoolers, whose development is still very rudimentary in comparison with what lies ahead for them in their youth, adulthood, and maturity.

But not-fully-realized is an adult condition as well, and Fred lived out his mission not only through “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” but in his everyday adult encounters with friends, family, colleagues, and so-called strangers. He used each engagement with another person, no matter how fleeting, as an opportunity to impart a blessing of attention and affirmation on the other. He rarely failed to part from another person without leaving them feeling better about themselves and their possibilities.

Perhaps the most widely noted example of Fred’s seizing such a moment was his acceptance “speech” when receiving an Emmy for Lifetime Achievement from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1998. The bejeweled audience for this gala event was made up of the most successful and celebrated (and in some instances hard-nosed) luminaries in TV. When Fred was called to the stage and microphone to receive his award, he turned the moment into a gift for everyone in the auditorium.

He looked across the gathering and said, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence.”

There was a ripple of puzzlement for an instant, so he raised his arm, conspicuously looked at his wristwatch, and said, “I’ll watch the time.”

The little titter of laughter faded quickly as members of the audience realized they were going to comply — they wanted to comply — with Fred’s suggestion. Then the audience, one by one, closed their eyes and moved into a sudden, intimate encounter with some precious person who had breathed life into them — who had enabled them to be present at such an exalted occasion as the Emmys — and the emotions began flowing freely. In seconds, quiet weepings lurched into audible sobs, dampened eyes blinked fast and then spilled messy tears. A roomful of celebrities was deep in holy gratitude for having been loved enough to become, well, celebrities.

Fred lifted his eyes from his watch after a while and pronounced the benediction: “May God be with you.” And he returned to his seat.

Note that he didn’t say, “God bless you”. This is important. Saying “God bless you” would have been superfluous. Fred was not goading God to up and do something useful for a change. He knew that God had already blessed them, couldn’t help but bless them, would always bless them.

“May God be with you” meant, “I hope that you are aware that God is with you” — Fred’s invitation to savor God’s imminence and transcendence and personal presence, and to put a Name to it.

Read more here

Before my afternoon kindergarten class I would sit in front of the television with a bowl of cereal in hand and watch Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood. I enjoyed singing with Mr. Rodgers in his calm and relaxed voice: it’s such a good feeling, to know that you’re alive, it’s such a happy feeling that you’re growing inside and when you wake up, ready to say, I think I’ll make it snappy to day [snaps fingers]…

And I always looked forward to when he tied his sneakers, making it look so effortlessly. And the many field trips he would take around his ‘neighborhood’–like the time he went to the crayon factory to show how the pigments we used in school were made; the different colors swirling in large containers that could fit a person; the many convector belts that looked like highways, separating each color and then later placing them together in a multicolored-family-box. Afterwards, when I picked up a crayon, I never looked at it the same way again.

Perhaps it is nostalgia or sentimentalism that brings my fingers gliding across the keyboard to describe memories. No, it is my heart that honors a man’s legacy of opening my imagination, to examine creation, and most of all by sharing God’s love.

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