From “Who Is My Neighbor?” to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
When I was a little girl my family lived in Indiana, where we lived in a house surrounded by cornfields with only one neighboring home on the block. Our neighbor’s home was run down, with lots of scrawny dogs and cats (who reproduced all the time), and two children with dirty clothes who were within the same age range of me and my brothers. Their names were Calvin and Katie, and while we knew that their home life was substantially different from ours, we shared the bond of play. Calvin and Katie would come over and roller blade with us, or play basketball, or occasionally play our Nintendo. We often had snack time when they came over, as my mom was extra attentive to children who might be in need of nurture. As time went on, Calvin and Katie began to come over more often. Sometimes they showed up uninvited around dinner time, just to see if we might have extra food for them. We would be getting ready to go to school or to church, and we would see Calvin and Katie peering into our windows to see if we were home. I was too young at the time to understand how different our lives truly were, but I was old enough to study my mother’s behavior. I was paying attention—every time she let them in, every time she fed them, every time she encouraged us to play with them and to be patient with them—and I knew why she did these things.
My mother understood that to be a neighbor is to extend your safety, your resources, and your love to those in need. She taught me the story of the Good Samaritan, and through her life I studied the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Quite honestly, it didn’t matter if it was the two kids with stained and torn clothes next door, or the person cutting her hair, or the cashier at Target, or the person bagging her groceries, or the person standing next to her in line—she was generally prepared to extend love and invitation. I mean, if my mom read this post (and she probably will, so, hey mom!), she would remind me of all the times she was less than hospitable. But despite whatever shortcomings she might recall, the presiding message that I received as a child was loud and clear: Jesus calls us to be neighborly. And frankly, the world needs neighborliness.
Perhaps this is why the television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was so unexpectedly well-received. What does an ordained minister with a bunch of puppets and low-production quality have to offer to a hurting world? An awful lot, as it turns out. I was recently flying to Atlanta for my brother’s wedding, when I saw that one of the movies Delta offered was the new documentary about Fred Rogers called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I smiled warmly as I remembered watching his show as a kid. I remembered the slow but oddly mesmerizing quality of the show, and I remembered how safe I felt in his fictional neighborhood. I figured the documentary would rouse some pleasant nostalgia, so I began to watch. Well, fast forward about 15 minutes, to the moment where I had to embarrassingly ask a stewardess to bring me tissues because I could not stop crying.
“Is that the Fred Rogers documentary!?” she asked.
“Yes—have you seen it yet?” I responded, while trying to get a grip on my obviously unhinged emotions.
“Not yet, but I think I’m going to see it with my daughter next week. I grew up watching him, you know? I wish Fred Rogers could be my neighbor today. My life would be so different with a Fred Rogers for a neighbor.”
She looked down to wipe away a tear that had welled up, and quickly composed herself with an embarrassed smile. “Enjoy your movie, ma’am.”
The fact of the matter is that, as a child, I had no idea how radical Fred Rogers’s hospitality truly was. All I knew as a kid was that he made me feel seen, safe, and loved—even through a TV screen. In the second episode of the show, King Friday erects a border wall to prevent change from entering his realm. How do the other characters respond? They essentially send paratrooper love notes over the border wall. They tie notes of love and hospitality to balloons and send the balloons over the wall, to persuade King Friday to let down his walls. I realize that for some people this may seem like a pretty bold political message, and frankly, it is. But you might not know that Fred Rogers was a Republican who challenged people of all political backgrounds to consider neighborliness as a way of life.
Fundamentally, the gift of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was this: Fred Rogers did not ask, “Who is my neighbor?” as if he must calculate how much love he could feasibly offer to the people around him. Rather, he posited an open question to anyone and everyone: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” As if to say, “I know you are worried that maybe you are not worthy, welcome, or even wanted, so let me make it clear up front that I would like for you to be my neighbor.” It was the same initiative I witnessed in my mom, and I think both Fred Rogers and my mom learned it through following Jesus.
We must not echo the misguided question of the lawyer in Luke 10 again and again, as we refuse to build relationships with the people who pose the greatest inconvenience to us. Rather, we must be transformed in the radical hospitality of Christ to recognize that everyone is a potential neighbor, and what we can offer to a hurting world is the compassionate invitation, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” As the stewardess on my flight so kindly reminded me, everyone wants a Fred Rogers in their lives. Everyone needs a neighbor.