At the Movies: Won’t You Be My Neighbor

“At the Movies: Won’t You Be My Neighbor”
Matthew 5: 13 – 16
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
July 15, 2018

Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” Why salt? Salt has quite a history.

In Rome, years ago, servants were paid with salt, and from the Roman word “salarium” comes our word “salary.”  American Indians called salt “magic white sand.”  Centuries ago a man could actually divorce his wife if she’d fail to salt his food.  Many Asians, in the past as well as today, feel that salt used as a meal is a sign of friendship and hospitality.  In fact, Arabs feel that if they have eaten together they are friends, and therefore cannot fight, for they say, “There is salt between us.”

In early days, humans would travel great distances searching for salt deposits.  Because of the salt the first highways of trade were developed.  As a result, communities, towns, and cities were built up.   From wages to preservation of fresh foods before refrigeration to serving as a disinfectant to enhancing the productivity of the land, humans have found over 14,000 uses for salt.

Indeed, salt is significant!!!!  When Jesus tells us, “You are the salt of the earth,” he is telling us that we are quite significant! We matter beyond measure! There are no limits to our worth.

Two thousand years later, Mister Rogers shares a similar affirmation. He ended each program of his “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”  T.V. show with the words, “You’ve made this day a special day by just being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” He believed that with his whole heart. He wanted, more than anything, for everyone to believe that we all have something important and unique to offer.  In other words, according to Mr. Rogers, we are the salt of the earth! We matter beyond measure!

This revolutionary. This is radical news. It was 2000 years ago and it is today. In a world where there is hostility and division, in a world where some are deemed as less than, in a world where children are placed in cages like animals, Mister Rogers simple message is revolutionary. No wonder the recent documentary currently in theaters entitled, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is universally beloved by critics with a near perfect 99% critic score and a 98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. How many of you have seen this movie? If you have not, I highly encourage you to see it and bring a box of Kleenex with you. (Play theme song.)

Fred Roger’s original life plan was to attend seminary after he graduated with an undergraduate degree in music composition. But during spring break of his senior year, he saw a television for the first time. And he was struck by the callous use of this amazing new medium, the television. He said, “I got into television because I saw people throwing pies at each other’s faces, and that to me was such demeaning behavior. And if there’s anything that bothers me, it’s one person demeaning another.” After all, Mr. Rogers believes we are the salt of the earth.

He believed that people deserve better. More specifically, he felt that children deserve better. In his words, “The space between the television and who’s watching it – I consider that holy ground.” Indeed, he conveyed a sense of reverence for each child he encountered.

When PBS was very close to being cut, it was Fred Rogers who appeared before the U.S. Senate Sub committee on Communications in 1969 and argued in his sweet, slow, compassionate, gentle voice to keep it running. Roger’s program received the twenty million dollar grant. It should be noted that he was given special ordination as a Presbyterian Minister with his pulpit being Public Television.

One of the most incredible scenes in the recent documentary about Mister Rogers, features Mister Rogers meeting Koko, the beloved gorilla. During their meeting, Koko told Mister Rogers, “I love you,” inquired about his cufflinks, and embraced the beloved TV icon. Show clip.

In this video clip, they sit on the floor, and Koko embraces Mister Rogers in her massive arm.  It’s an astounding moment of interspecies affection. Koko does for Mister Rogers what he does for us: providing boundless love and care that we deeply crave. Show video.

Unfortunately, Koko the gorilla died just a few weeks ago at the age of 46 years old. And on the topic of death, Mister Rogers was not afraid to address grief with children. Children need help understanding that sadness is a natural response to loss. In this intimate program, Mister Rogers discovers a dead fish in his aquarium. He tries to revive the fish but cannot. He reverently buries the goldfish outside. One of the most touching scenes for me. Show clip. 

 Mister Rogers was not afraid to address tough subjects – from Kennedy’s assassination to the Challenger Disaster to 911 (in which he said, “Look for the helpers.”) to issues of disabilities to getting lost to divorce. Mister Rogers devoted an entire week of programming to divorce in the 1980’s. He said this, “Some people get married and after awhile they are so unhappy with each other they don’t want to be married anymore.” He always wanted to convey a message that each child is cared for and loved, not matter what – especially if they are going through a particularly challenging time in life like a divorce or a death.

Mister Roger’s was radical – taking on the most challenging of subjects. From death to divorce to racism. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mister Rogers introduced a special guest to the neighborhood, Officer Clemmons. Francois Clemmons was the first black person with a recurring role on a kids’ show. Mister Rogers would say to the children “Great to live in a neighborhood with special people like Officer Clemmons.” Of course, this was during the time of white flight in neighborhoods.

A year later black people were getting chased out of public swimming pools and acid was poured into pools in urban white settings to keep black people from swimming in those pools. Let’s not forget how black people could only swim in the Sylvan Plunge in Redlands on Mondays because that was the day the pool was being drained. In response, Mister Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to use his pool. “It’s so warm, I was just putting water on my feet. Would you like to join me?” asked Mister Rogers. Officer Clemmons said, “That looks awfully enjoyable, but I don’t have a towel or anything.” “Oh,” said Mister Rogers, “you can use mine.”  Yes, enjoy my pool; use my towel – Mister Rogers was sending a clear message to his viewers.  Show clip.

 Despite the show’s calm atmosphere, Rogers didn’t shy away from controversial issues. He was very much aware of what was happening in the United States and didn’t bury his head in the sand. Mister Rogers made it a point, through words and actions, to share the good news that each of us, whoever we are, wherever we are on life’s journey, whatever the color of our skin, we are welcome in his neighborhood. Mister Rogers said, “Love is the root of everything. All learning, parenting, relationships. Love or the lack of it.” Moreover, he stated, “Those who would try to make you less than you are – that’s the real evil.” A world of hostility and division and demeaning, bullying, and belittling others – that is the real evil.

He even tied his message of love and affirmation to his weight of 143 pounds. For 30 years, Mister Rogers refused to do anything that would make his weight change. He didn’t smoke, drink, and he was a vegetarian. Every morning when he swam, he stepped on a scale in his bathing suit, bathing cap and goggles, and the scale told him that he weighed 143 pounds. This happened for 30 years and soon Mister Rogers came to see that number as a gift, as a destiny fulfilled. He said, “The number 143 means ‘I love you. It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you.’ One hundred and forty-three. ‘I love you.’ Isn’t that wonderful?”

Undoubtedly, his memory lives on in a new cartoon, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Beginning in 2012, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was re-imagined as an animated show with the Roger’s family’s blessing. I love to watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood with Daniella and though it is directed towards children between the ages of 2 and 4 years old, I always learn so much about character development, feelings, and taming the tiger within!

 Play Daniel Tiger Theme Song

At the conclusion of the documentary, Mister Rogers says this, “From the time you were born, there are people who have smiled you into smiling; talked you into talking; sung you into singing; and loved you into loving. Take a minute and think about who that is for you.” As I observed the people in the movie theater, I first observed some chuckling. And then silence. And then sniffling…I even caught one big, burly man wiping the tears from his cheeks.

In the spirit of Mister Rogers, I ask that we all now join for a moment of silence in reflecting on those who “smiled us into smiling, loved us into loving,” instilled in us a sense of worth and dignity and affirmed that we are indeed the salt of the earth. Amen.