A hot summer day in North Carolina, and the lure of a cool movie theater – what’s playing? A few days ago I went to the Carolina Theater to see a new documentary about Mr. Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Do any of us remember the days of watching PBS on a late weekday afternoon, and the warm familiarity of Mr. Rogers opening the door and inviting us to join him as he changed out of his work shoes and into comfortable sneakers, and then put on his cardigan sweater? It’s all there in this movie.
And there is something about his basic, at-level kindness – the way he interacts with people, the way he leans to the level of his young viewers and listens to their questions (One young girl: “Mr. Rogers, I like you!” Mr. Rogers: “Well I like you too!”). What do we make of Mr. Rogers, whose show on PBS ran over several decades, who was this kind presence among us in those years? One question that is asked in the movie is, did he make a difference in children’s, or anyone’s, lives? As I watched the movie, I wondered about this – how would he play in our culture today? Is there any kind of room for a Mr. Rogers in our often-divided culture now?
There is one scene in which Mr. Rogers is dangling his feet in a blue kiddie-pool. Nothing unusual about that, except that alongside him is a black cast member also dangling his feet in the same pool. It was sometime around the late 1960s or early 1970s. Mr. Rogers, who was an ordained Presbyterian minister, knew exactly what he was doing. In the midst of tension over civil rights, he was using television to offer an alternative image of how we might all live among one another. It’s a scene that is reminiscent of the foot-washing in the gospel of John. And for me, that scene helped answer the question of how would he “play” in our culture today? His voice would be needed, and welcomed.