Loving our neighbors without fear

Jul 11, 2018 by

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I saw two movies recently. The second was First Reformed. The pastor of a small Christian Reformed church somewhere in New York struggles with a tension between hope and darkness in his own life and runs into a “soul-shaking encounter” with an environmental activist so filled with despair about what is happening on our planet that he wants to abort their baby; his young wife is pregnant and she has brought the pastor into their troubling situation. In its past, this church was part of the underground railway, the relay of desperate hope that smuggled slaves out of the United States to Canada. The little church is about to celebrate 250 years, a celebration of “rich men patting each other on their backs” says the pastor. The old building is now almost empty and the pastor finds himself dealing with the young man in despair, hardly able to pay attention to the celebration his seniors from the bigger church hierarchy are planning.

Three days earlier I had seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — the story of Fred Rogers and his passion for kindness, especially to children. He was an only child until he was 11 and was often sick, so he learned to play by himself, inventing characters and voices and puppets that he used to talk to himself. About stuff. Life. A gifted musician as well, he was training to be a Presbyterian minister when he first saw television, embraced its potential for good, and started a low-tech decades-long (1968 to 2001) Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood program reaching out to remind children that they are loved, that they are special, that they don’t have to do anything to deserve it. They are entitled to it. His entire life seems to be one long wish to make children be OK, almost as if he woke up and went to bed every day worrying about their well-being — he was so committed. “The greatest evil,” he says at one point, “would be those who would make you feel less than what you are.”

Rogers was never out to build a television career; it wasn’t about him. He just saw in TV a medium through which he could connect with millions of pre-school children, their parents, their uncles and aunts, their guardians, about the simplest message: love. He remained a committed Christian and imagined not the self-serving, protectionist, fear-driven belief systems so entrenched among us today, but a wide-open Christianity … a “down-to-earth’ caring for each other. “It’s the only thing that works,” he said. Near the end, someone rages about Rogers’ impact, ranting that he destroyed an entire generation of children by making them feel special without earning it. That he lied to the kids. That this tireless call to love our children simply spoiled them and created expectations of kindness they just apparently aren’t entitled to. Maybe the saddest comment in the film is made in passing when one of Rogers’ many supporters says, “Today there isn’t room for a nice person on television.” I hope that isn’t totally true, and I hope the Christian community isn’t also losing that gift.

Rogers connected with children about pretty much any topic. 9/11. The assassination of Robert Kennedy. Civil rights. All major stuff that others wouldn’t touch among children, but he did it with what comes out in the story as an unquenchable thoughtfulness, care and always kindness. Through the songs he wrote and sang, the weekly conversations with his puppets, he allowed the kids to think their thoughts, to have their fears and worries … as they were; he helped them name their anxieties and talk about them.

At one time he was meeting a group of pre-school children, and as he approached them, a little boy said to him, “My doggie’s ear came off in the automatic washer.” They were young, just bursting into life, and Rogers understood it as a kind of litmus test. Would he engage them? He could ignore the comment and move into his prepared program, but he went with it. He always did. Sometimes these things happen to our toys, he said to the little boy. But isn’t it good that your ears don’t come off like that? Your arms don’t come off? Your legs don’t come off? He had connected with them on their terms and they went with him.

A recent sermon began something like that — just oddly. The church was doing some renovations. The old folding wall between the sanctuary and the gym area had been held together with duck tape, and eventually a contractor was hired to install a new one. After a couple of weeks it was done, except for some drywall work and one lone worker finishing up. The pastor stopped by to say hello to the tradesman and asked if he could make him a coffee. No, said the tradesman, but he did have a question. A wasp had followed him into the building and after it buzzed around him for a while and he couldn’t shush it out, he killed it. The tradesman wanted to know: Would the church have an issue with him having killed the wasp? And that, said the pastor, led them into a conversation about spirituality, creation, God. Stuff. Like all of Fred Rogers’ encounters with children, it’s a tiny little big story, and the pastor’s point was this: Don’t be afraid. Let people into your life. At work, at church, in the neighborhood — a little wasp can lead to a connection and a conversation. It’s the stuff we are made for — “Almost anything can lead to something,” said the pastor.

On the Mexican/Texas border we can somehow biblically justify frightening and wrecking the lives of little children and young teens; in the name of Christ and national security and “the law” — and some kind of fear. The young woman in First Reformed is pregnant. She wants to have the baby. Her husband’s fear of the future drives him to consider aborting the child, which adds to his wife’s worry and stress. A pastor in Calgary said recently that Jesus’ most radical saying was probably “Do not be afraid.” Knowing how close to the edge most of his listeners lived, he could only have kept saying that if he knew that there is something else infinitely powerful that works, when it’s given generously and abundantly and without reservation. Fred Rogers said it’s love. Jesus said it’s love. We all know it’s love. The looking out for the good of the person next to us. Rogers’ entire life was a sermon, a prophetic voice to make that simple and so elusive calling of Jesus true for children, the always most vulnerable. Love; don’t be afraid.

Abe Janzen lives in Calgary, Alta., attends an Evangelical Mennonite Conference congregation and works with Mennonite Central Committee Alberta. He blogs at Messy Notes, where this post first appeared.


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