On February 19th, 1968, a mild-mannered man in a cardigan sweater introduced himself to the nation.
He wasn't completely unknown at that point, of course, having worked in Canadian television for a few years, and for a local Pittsburgh public station for a few years both before and after that. And he'd had other experience, mostly behind-the-camera, before that. In fact, by the time Misterogers' Neighborhood (as it was originally known) first aired nationally, Fred Rogers was already nearly 40 years old, and had been working in the television industry for the better part of two decades. More or less ever since his graduation from college with a BA in Music Composition.
In those pre-national years honing his skills as a television host and producer, Fred Rogers was also attending classes at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (also the alma mater of the pastor who was one of my first mentors growing up, although he would have started classes a few years after Rogers had graduated). Fred Rogers was ordained a minister in 1963, not to serve as pastor of a congregation, but with a specific charge to minister to the needs of children through television.
That Mister Rogers (as he was universally known) was a person of faith comes as a surprise to some people. After all, he never explicitly talked about God or religion on the show that he was most-known for. Yet the evidence of Rogers' faith permeates every moment of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, just as much as all those years of work and study prepared him for producing such a unique program. Understanding God's love for all people, Rogers shared that love through the screen, and in his day-to-day interactions with the people he worked with and met through the show's success. By practically all accounts, the man you saw on television was the man he was in real life.
There's a lot of talk these days about the need to stand up for what one believes in. For too many people of religious faith, that means an argumentative stance for certain codes of behavior or doctrine, as if to say that everyone must conform or be considered an enemy. For Mister Rogers, it meant being a consistent, gentle voice, reminding people that they are valuable precisely because of their uniqueness. He taught us as children (and perhaps again as adults) constructive ways of dealing with our feelings of anger and fear at the ways the world can hurt us. Without denying tragic reality when catastrophe might strike, he would tell us to "look for the helpers," and in so doing provide both hope and an example that we might one day follow.
If it is indeed true that, as the song suggests, others will know that we are Christians by our love, then the fact that Mister Rogers was indeed a Christian shouldn't be a surprise after all. In an era where the things that divide us are more painfully obvious than ever, it is my hope that Mister Rogers' gentle message can show us that there's another way. A better way. Perhaps, if I may be so bold, even the way of Christ himself.
Thank God for Mister Rogers. May we all learn to walk in his footsteps.