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Aging Hero: Mr. Rogers

“I’ve always felt that I didn’t need to put on a funny hat or jump through the hoop to have a relationship with a child.” – Rev. Fred Rogers

Few things as of late have filled me with more anticipation than seeing the trailer for the new Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Many know already that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Plenty of people, though, are still unaware and it is always a small joy when I get to be the one to inform them that the man so well known for children’s television was also clergy.

It makes for an easy shortcut when I want to communicate what sort of pastor I want to be. Simply by saying, “I want to bring the same qualities to my ministry that Mr. Rogers brought to his television program,” I can speak multitudes about the qualities I most admire in others and hope to develop over the course of my own life. Fred Rogers was kind, unafraid to take on difficult subjects, didn’t take himself too seriously, exuded joy and most of all had a unique gift for connecting cross-generationally.

Aging Heroes

For all those qualities and more, when I reflect on people who aged exceptionally well, Mr. Rogers is one of the first people who come to mind.

What made Mr. Rogers’ program so special was his ability to take the needs and experiences of children seriously. It always seemed he could interact with children on their terms and yet without being condescending to them. And Fred Rogers could do this, as he said, “without a funny hat or jumping through the hoop.”

Children are so often seen as either nuisances at worst or sources of entertainment at best when they are around grown-ups. It’s either “seen and not heard” or “aren’t they cute!” But neither nuisance nor source of entertainment are very conducive models for building real relationships, and meaningful multi-generational relationships are so sorely lacking in our world.

Engagement Across Generations

In Mr. Rogers’ work, we can find styles of cross-generational engagement that break out of the usual ruts. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, unlike so much other children’s programming, did not aim primarily to entertain children with various bells and whistles. Instead, the show provided space for children to be children, gave them language, skills and opportunities to process their world and showed the possibility of adults experiencing the world like a child. What’s most striking about the show is not how entertained the children appear, but rather the extent to which Fred Rogers shared genuinely in their joy.

There’s a world of difference between an adult entertaining kids by putting dancing cartoons on the television and an adult learning new dance moves from a kid. The willingness to do the latter is what set Mr. Rogers apart and made his connection to children so captivating to watch.

A pastor colleague of mine sets aside a Sunday every once in a while for the whole congregation, people of all ages, to “worship like a child.” It is essentially a Sunday school lesson but for all ages. Everyone is invited to craft together and to hear the same lessons and sing the same songs. So children see that their world is just as important to the life of the church as anyone else’s and adults are encouraged to see and experience their inner child. It sounds to me like something Rev. Fred Rogers would have dreamed up.

How do you think things would change if more people thought like Mr. Rogers? Where in your community do you see opportunities to build meaningful relationships across generational boundaries?

About Rev. Jared Ruari

The Rev. Jared Ruari lives in Mansfield, Ohio with his partner Allison and their three cats. He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and serves St. John's UCC.

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