(Edited to include few direct quotes from printed works.)
Message, Part 1:
Good Morning. Thank you all for coming here to be my neighbor. Whether you are part of the
Gathering at Northern Hills, or visiting with us today, we all share the Neighborhood of this Sanctuary, of
Greater Cincinnati, of North America.
I understand this congregation loves to wear ties, the uglier the better. So, in order to adapt to your
traditions, John and I have added ties to our outfits this morning. But don’t be surprised if they are taken off
soon – As you know, they can be a hindrance to communication – especially singing.
This service began when I was assigned the topic “Neighbors” for First Church and St. Johns UU. Of
course, that could go in many directions, but my immediate thought was – Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors. When my
young children were of appropriate age, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a marvelous television show for them,
and of course the prelude song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” was a major aspect of the welcoming, supportive,
creative impact of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
What is so special about Mr. Rogers? Here is what I remember from our own family time with Mr.
Rogers’ Neighborhood. He speaks slowly and quietly, follows the same routine at the beginning of each
episode: sings Won’t You Be My Neighbor as he removes his “work” sport coat and puts on a sweater; sits
down and changes from dressy “work” shoes to comfortable “at home” shoes. He includes Neighbors of many
varieties on his show – people with different backgrounds, work experiences, talents, abilities and disabilities –
and welcomes and affirms them all. He uses puppets and live actors to tell stories about his themes, and
always leaves us with a positive and hopeful feeling.
(While Mr. Rogers died in 2003, many of his programs are available online. The Fred Rogers Company
has also started producing an animated show called Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is about to start its
third season. It is based on Fred Rogers’ philosophy and experience with the Neighborhood – and includes
some of the memorable elements and puppet families of the original show. Check out pbskids.)
When I decided to talk about Mr. Rogers, I was so caught up in the idea, that I ordered 8 books from
the public library – written by and about Fred Rogers. I was amazed at the number of books he had written for
children and for parents, and was delighted with the titles of some written about him. If you need help
supporting your small child in new activities or emotional challenges, you could try, for instance, Going to the
Doctor, Going to Day Care, – or When a Pet Dies. There are books devoted to helping parents understand
child development, and providing support and ideas for each new developmental stage their child experiences
I was especially taken with three books written by Mr. Rogers: a collection of his “words of wisdom,” a
collection of letters written to him by children, and a book called Extraordinary Friends, Those of you who
know our son Artie, will understand why the cover of this book struck such a chord with me. [book has photo of
child in wheelchair grinning at a friend] I will have this, and the other books, available for you to look at after
the service (and the congregational meeting).
A 1996 book of letters to Mr. Rogers is titled Dear Mr. Rogers, Does it ever rain in your neighborhood?
In the Introduction, Mr. Rogers gives some insight into his show and his care for his “television neighbors.”
[He comments about the use of television to communicate, and the limitations it brings. He enjoys the mail
more, because he can learn a little about the writer, although he still knows only a tiny bit about each]
Here are some letters – and responses which stand out for me:
[A letter from Hannah says she is afraid of the dark. Mr. Rogers tells her many children are afraid of
the dark, and suggests play, telling stories, or using puppets to help with feeling scared. He says he is proud
of the ways she is growing, including being able to talk about her feelings.]
Dear Mister Rogers,
Do you live in there? Philip, age 4 ½
Mr. Roger’s note to the reader: “That letter reminded me of a time a young boy came up to me and said in
amazement, ‘Mister Rogers, How did you get out of the box!’
[Another letter is from Katie, who worries about Mr. Rogers’ fish; she is blind and cannot see them
being fed, and she asks him to say out loud when he feeds them.
He notes to the reader, that he now tries to remembers to say so – and this is just one of many things
he has learned from children and families.]
Message, Part II: Our World Neighborhood: the Power of Love
The books about Mr. Rogers are a great source of information – and inspiration. He studied music
composition; as we know, he worked with puppets; and he later became a Presbyterian minister. At his
ordination he was charged with ministry to children via television – and that did indeed become his life’s work.
This television ministry was an expression of his own spiritual values, and many of these values were
counter to the culture of the day. A recently published book about him, called Peaceful Neighbor; Discovering
the countercultural Mister Rogers, by Michael G. Long, goes into detail about this history. Michael Long was
given access to not only the entire run of Neighborhood programs, but also boxes of Rogers’ letters, papers,
commencement speeches, and sermons.
Here are some of Long’s conclusions:
First:** Fred Rogers helped children acknowledge feelings, including negative ones. He stressed that
although it is OK to be angry, anger must not be used to hurt ourselves or other people. He talked about the
need to stop bad actions. His counter-cultural viewpoint advocated punishment only from love, rather than as
a show of power. This was directed not only toward children, but also to adult law-breakers.
What would Mr. Rogers do? Rehabilitate wrongdoers and help them re-enter society.
** Fred Rogers was a “radical pacifist.” The first week of programs was in 1968 just after the Tet
offensive in Vietnam during the war. It was very clear then that he was against war; he also showed the need
to work for peace; and included civil disobedience in his puppet story. During the Persian Gulf War (1991) he
called war “abuse of children” – for it inevitably brings fear, and children may lose the caregivers they count on.
He also felt that peace is indeed possible – if we refuse to take part in war, if we see the goodness in
others, and do constructive things to build a world where no one needs to be afraid of others.
What would Mr. Rogers do? After 9/11, Mr. Rogers responded to terrorism by calling all of us to spread
** Fred Rogers made it clear that peace is not only the absence of war. Long says:
“Rogers had a highly nuanced view of loving relationships, of treating others with the respect and
dignity due them, and so his vision of peace demanded not only the absence of war but also the presence of
relationships of deep love . . . Rogers used his program and other venues to address many other obstacles to
peace, such as racial discrimination, poverty, gender inequality, the killing of animals, commercialism, and
Indeed – Fred Rogers was vegetarian long before the idea was part of popular culture. His early
programs showed and celebrated cultural and racial diversity. His stories showed “mothering” and “fathering”
done by both men and women. Regarding individuals with mental or physical limitations, he pointed out that
everyone has limitations – some are just more subtle than others. When President Reagan said there is no
evidence of rampant hunger in the United States, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood concentrated on feeding hungry
people, and featured a story about a hungry goat eating the Neighborhood garden. Mr. Rogers’ comment to
children: Can you imagine how hungry some people must be to take somebody else’s garden? He also
pointed out that everyone has needs – and everyone can both give and receive. People who have plenty of
money, have other needs; those who receive food or clothing, have other strengths.
What would Mr. Rogers do? In last summer’s newsletter of the American Friends Service Committee
(this is a Quaker organization – similar to the UU Service Committee), there was a story of their work in Haiti,
where we know there has been devastation and severe lack of resources – and the violence which can
accompany that situation. It says:
Every Saturday morning, leaders in the camp convene small groups, known as local peace networks, to
address problems facing community members. Participants range in age from 12 to 50 They’ve developed
sanitation systems; made goods such as sandals, bracelets, and necklaces to sell; and reduced violence.
One of the local organizers says: “Before the local peace network activities, inhabitants couldn’t even walk in
some areas,… But because we have selected the most violent and vulnerable youth and young adults to be
part of the local peace network, now the situation is really different. People are feeling safe and not afraid.”
I am certain – this is what Mr. Rogers would do.
** Fred Rogers was a Universalist. He said clearly that we are all worthy of love, and that there is the spark
of the divine in each of us. (Michael Long says of Rogers: Officially, he was Presbyterian. Unofficially, he was
A final quote from Fred Rogers himself: I believe at the center of the universe there dwells a loving
spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well
as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible.”
Consider these words when you ask: What would Mr. Rogers do?