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Mr. Rogers Is Not Jesus

February 20, 2018

I have been told the dead Fred Rogers broadcast his neighborhood for the first time 50 years ago, yesterday.

Hard to believe: I thought he was around before I was born 62 1/2 years ago. In a recent Atlantic Magazine article also told to me an hour ago (by a good friend I have never met) (a little like Fred wanted to be) the author relays a book excerpt that simply said:

““After graduating from seminary, the Presbyterian Church didn’t know what to do with Fred,” says Amy Hollingsworth, author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers. “So the presbytery gave him a special commission to be an evangelist to children through the media.””

Wait, it was in the early 1960’s – there were never enough clerics for a historically high, in fact exploding, church attendance. And they gave him a “special” commission? And then I flashed on an anecdote.

A great good friend in college was made an intern in PBS at the New York Station where Fred Rogers worked in the early ’70’s, and had the chance to encounter Mr. Rogers in the flesh. My friend went on to work for a while in residence life positions in universities and he was extremely open, sensitive and has one of the best senses of humor I have ever laughed with. He was accepting in ways that seemed pretty “sensitive” back then.

He thought Fred Rogers was, well, disturbing. Maybe the Presbyterian Church caught that vibe.

Rogers was operating on a plane that seemed detached to the point more than a little scary to my friend: who was not easily frightened.

The article’s author, Jonathan Merritt goes on to say “In the wake of World War II, thousands of veterans returned from battle and started families. These shell-shocked heroes risked creating a generation of emotionally stunted children.” He helped one of those break the silence of autism, cured actress Loren Tewes of cocaine addiction and literally prayed before every show “Let my words be God’s” in the “sacred ground” between the viewer and the viewed.

I kinda hated him.

My dad was clearly coping his entire life, mostly with scotch and Kent cigarettes. He was one of those undiagnosed Greatest Generation PTSD suburbanites whose spawn Rogers touched. But I was 13 when Rogers came on the air. I was living the Clockwork Orange life of a teenager listening, deeply, to Ludwig van and crushing the football field in UltraVi.

It was not a neighborly beauty wood. It was wounded, tough, painful.

So when first I noticed Mr. Rogers in my neighborhood, my first response began with the letter F. If lame was in the enhanced vernacular then Mr. Rogers personified that. To me and SNL.

He saved many folk who were not skeeved out by him as my friend was whenever they shared an elevator.

Those saved watching him on TV, and the freaked co-worker, and the angry broken teenager all saw Fred Rogers differently. But he was the same person. He based his life on love and God and TV. He was complicated. His dramatically lame puppeteering was literally painful, his cardigan and slippers ritual was, to me, creepy, but he truly meant a huge amount to many people.

The evening before I read this piece, I was with a group of fellow Episcopalians who work to make the love of God relevant to those who find Jesus to be closer to Mr. Rogers – and not in a good way. I noted that up here, in New England that the name Jesus has two syllables, not three, and if he is anything untouchable he will remain as untouched as Fred Rogers was by me.

In 1971 Jesus and Fred Rogers were completely out of my orbit. I was in a flailing self-save that I know my distant and damaged siblings were also efforting: in full desperation. Surviving in danger is dark, mostly dangerous, but also necessary. Loren Tewes says she survived because of Mr. Rogers. I survived not because I nailed Bob Colvin on a fumble drill (although I thought so at the time) but because God was there. Right there and not on my radar.

You either hear the music or it is noise.

Stealth Jesus is always there, in Connecticut he has 2 syllables  or you cannot hear him, other places he offers a “beauty wood”. In the dark, in the silence, with the TV off, before I survive another day by dint of work and acceptance of inevitable failures (and some successes), I hear him.

Without Lent I would have chuckled at my friend’s “share”, but I would not have thought whether he just might find me kinda skeevy too, if we ever actually met. I doubt it, but he is far, far away – like Fred Rogers.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Audrey permalink
    February 20, 2018 6:33 am

    Well. I was 11 when Fred came on the screen, but my sister was a toddler. We watched together. My mother thought Fred’s alternate neighborhood (The puppet place- “the neighborhood of make-believe”) was weird and that his puppetry was lame. But I liked the videos of factories and the things that Fred said to me (and it felt like it was just me) that made me feel lovable and worthy. No one else was really saying that stuff to me, and least of all, me, at the crushingly awkward pre-teen phase (or today, either, if I am honest).

    A priest friend of mine worked in “the neighborhood” with/for Fred when he moved the gig to Pittsburgh. She thinks the world of him.

  2. February 21, 2018 7:47 am

    Mr. Rogers was soothing to a very young kid growing up in the early 70s after his father died young and his British mother was scared living among Italians with two young children in a coal mining town. I hope my son can recognize the stability we fabricated but more importantly that the real Jesus eschews how we’ve made Him in our own image.

  3. John Mark Rozendaal permalink
    June 1, 2018 6:04 pm

    Mister Rogers is a perfect litmus test for the viewer’s level of alienation vs. integration. The extent to which one is distrustful, or “skeeved out” by Rogers, or judges his fantasies as “lame”, reveals one’s precise level of wounded cynical detachment.

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