Fred Rogers knew so many things no one ever taught him.
One of them was the presence of God. He knew God's presence in his own life, and he knew God was present in the life of every person ever created on earth. This wasn't something he learned in his seminary studies; it was what prompted him to pursue those studies in the first place.
Fred's knowledge of God was profoundly personal -- the kind of knowing reflected in the Hebrew word "yadtha" which denotes an astonishingly provocative paired set of meanings -- the knowledge of God, and the intimate knowledge of one's lover.
And so Fred never publicly trumpeted his own experience of God or encouraged others to verbalize theirs. That would have been as inappropriate as locker-room boasting about sexual encounters. Rather, he simply expressed God's presence through his work and his relationships -- something I was privileged to share in.
One can discern both Fred's understanding of God and his regard for his audiences by considering what he did with those who entrusted him with their attention.
Let's start with the way he structured his relationship with preschool children who turned daily to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood". He was always speaking through the television to just one child, and one child only. None of this "all you boys and girls out there in TV-land" stuff. Fred was there to befriend each child as though there were only one child out there to befriend. I have characterized the program as an illustrated phone conversation between Fred and a single child.
In keeping with this one-on-one relationship, he did not have viewer-age children on the set with him. The program features numerous adult guests Fred thought children should meet, to be sure. But age-mate preschool peers would have required his attention and compromised his commitment to be exclusively engaged through the camera with that single child at home. Worse, they might be seen by the viewer as a rival for Fred's care and affection.
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As for the agenda of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood", it was deeply resonant with the agenda God offers us as co-creators of our life and world, and with the comfort of being held in good hands. First and always was the affirmation of unconditional love: "I like you just the way you are" is what every child heard from Fred every single day. That's a message any of us would welcome hearing ourselves.
Some parents, however, misunderstood that statement, noting a preschool child's numerous means of irritating them. But there was no reason for Fred not to deliver that message; after all, the viewing child was not annoying Fred. This isn't to say that Fred didn't have empathy for parents. Himself the father of two sons, he well knew the challenges of parenting. And some of his songs, like "What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel", were written to help children constructively manage their own impulsive behavior.
But Fred was not there to dispense lessons and rules. He was there to be a grace note in children's lives. Fred understood the power of grace -- how a shower of affirmation nurtures the yearning to be even more of our likable selves, something criticism and exhortation rarely accomplish.
The content of the series explored a full array of the developmental tasks facing preschoolers and fostered their creativity and imagination. But any given program often began in some worrisome place where Fred knew the child might be found -- say, dwelling in anxiety about being displaced in his or her parents' affection by the newly arrived baby sibling, or fearing the possibility of being separated from one's parents. They began, in other words, in the very kinds of worrisome situations that might prompt an adult to turn to prayer.
Fred engages the child right there at the point of pain or fear, in a linked series of initiatives by him and exquisitely anticipated responses by the young viewer. Fred introduces a thought or object, the child at home is moved to think or feel something, then Fred makes a further move based on the child's likely response, followed by another response, and yet a further move ... By the end of the twenty-eight minutes and thirty-eight seconds of each program, the child is in a different place, a better place. And still right beside Mister Rogers, who has gently brought the child over there.
Fred also told each child, "You are special". Fred understood that God endows every person with unique gifts, and it was his personal mission to nurture both the gift and the child's awareness that she or he did indeed possess the gift. For Fred, life was all about bringing out the best any individual has within them -- within them, but oftentimes not yet fully realized. Not-fully-realized is obviously the case for preschoolers, whose development is still very rudimentary in comparison with what lies ahead for them in their youth, adulthood, and maturity.
But not-fully-realized is an adult condition as well, and Fred lived out his mission not only through "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" but in his everyday adult encounters with friends, family, colleagues, and so-called strangers. He used each engagement with another person, no matter how fleeting, as an opportunity to impart a blessing of attention and affirmation on the other. He rarely failed to part from another person without leaving them feeling better about themselves and their possibilities.
Perhaps the most widely noted example of Fred's seizing such a moment was his acceptance "speech" when receiving an Emmy for Lifetime Achievement from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1998. The bejeweled audience for this gala event was made up of the most successful and celebrated (and in some instances hard-nosed) luminaries in TV. When Fred was called to the stage and microphone to receive his award, he turned the moment into a gift for everyone in the auditorium.
He looked across the gathering and said, "All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence."
There was a ripple of puzzlement for an instant, so he raised his arm, conspicuously looked at his wristwatch, and said, "I'll watch the time."
The little titter of laughter faded quickly as members of the audience realized they were going to comply -- they wanted to comply -- with Fred's suggestion. Then the audience, one by one, closed their eyes and moved into a sudden, intimate encounter with some precious person who had breathed life into them -- who had enabled them to be present at such an exalted occasion as the Emmys -- and the emotions began flowing freely. In seconds, quiet weepings lurched into audible sobs, dampened eyes blinked fast and then spilled messy tears. A roomful of celebrities was deep in holy gratitude for having been loved enough to become, well, celebrities.
Fred lifted his eyes from his watch after a while and pronounced the benediction: "May God be with you." And he returned to his seat.
Note that he didn't say, "God bless you". This is important. Saying "God bless you" would have been superfluous. Fred was not goading God to up and do something useful for a change. He knew that God had already blessed them, couldn't help but bless them, would always bless them.
"May God be with you" meant, "I hope that you are aware that God is with you" -- Fred's invitation to savor God's imminence and transcendence and personal presence, and to put a Name to it.
Eliot Daley, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), served as president of the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" organization in its early days, writing a number of scripts for the program while also managing its operations.
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