As night falls on February 27th, I would lobby hard that the church remember a modern saint who saw everyone as his neighbor, and therefore loved his neighbor as himself (and even more-so) without even trying, teaching others to do the same: Saint Fred McFeely Rogers, Friend of Humanity and Muse of Young Ones.
Fred McFeely (yes, you read that correctly) Rogers was born in 1928 just as the American landscape was about to take a turn for the worst. Born in Latrobe, PA, Saint Fred was a shy child, spending much of his spare time with puppets he made or who were given to him. He was tormented and bullied at school because of his quiet way, and was called “Fat Freddy” by classmates because he was overweight.
These early experiences no doubt sent him on a spiritual quest for true friendship.
He overcame his shyness in High School through trial and error, finding out what true friendship looked like, and eventually gained a University degree in music. On one of his summers home from college he encountered a new box in his parent’s house: a television. He was intrigued and disgusted.
Saint Fred was not in love with television at first, but saw that it had potential to shape the people who tuned in. He went to work for NBC, and then his local Pittsburgh affiliate, trying his hand at children’s shows and production. While doing all of this he also answered a call from the church and graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. But rather than finding his parish within sacred halls sitting in pews, he cultivated his parish within living rooms across vast distances who sat on couches, floors, or on their knees with their small hands pressed against the screen.
Freddy had found the friends his childhood self desired, but never could make.
Saint Fred had a number of different children’s programs in different markets through the early ’60’s. He worked with child psychologists to understand best how children not only developed, but also how they learned best. He was tireless in trying to make the medium a good for children.
In 1968 Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood began airing nationally on what would become PBS. Over almost 900 episodes children learned how to make and keep friends, sing songs together, use their imaginations, and be curious. When the last episode aired in 2001, Saint Fred had not only left his mark on the television industry, he had left his mark on so many of our hearts, me included.
Fun fact: he taught me what house shoes are…always being sure to change into them when he came in the door.
Alongside his care for children and their education, Saint Fred was a tireless advocate within the halls of power for educational opportunities and children’s rights. He spoke before congress, used politics for the betterment of humans, and gave scores of commencement speeches to eager young minds wanting to change the world like he did.
As if all of the above didn’t keep him busy enough, he also married and had two sons, appropriately named James and John. He kept his license as a Presbyterian minister his many years, and reportedly had a deep spiritual life that also studied mysticism, Buddhism, and many other faiths. He never spoke about religion overtly on the air, but believed his example said volumes about his core convictions.
He was eloquent and honest and earnest. But I think his deep secret to changing the world had very little to do with what he said and most to do with who he was: he was a very good friend.
And that made all the difference.
He died on this day in 2003.
Saint Fred McFeely Rogers is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes evangelism isn’t done by saying anything about your faith, but rather by simply living it and being a darn good friend in the process.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.
-historical bits from public sources
-icon written by Kelly Latimore (and is available for purchase from him!)