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‘Love your neighbor’ like Mister Rogers did

Presbyterians celebrate the life lessons of a beloved children’s television pioneer, the Rev. Fred Rogers

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

On March 20, Derrada Rubell-Asbell, director of Music Ministries at Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church in Dallas, posted a photo of himself on the famous set of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” (Contributed photo)

“Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person,” the Rev. Fred Rogers, known to millions as Mister Rogers, once mused while reminding his audience as he often did that there are many ways to say, “I love you,” from greeting someone to feeding a hungry neighbor or cleaning up common spaces.

When he died in 2003, Rogers, a pioneer in public television and a Presbyterian minister, left behind 33 years of televised and published content that encouraged children to listen their heart and express care for those around them. In addition to the beloved series, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran from 1968-2001, Rogers left resources for spiritual formation and peacemaking with children developed in partnership with the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

In 2021, the Presbyterian Planning Calendar recognized March 20, Fred Rogers’ birthday, to be a special emphasis day on which to highlight the work of Rogers as a “pioneer in a the world of Christian education and the formation of young children.” For several years, churches have been encouraged to honor Rogers’ legacy and to celebrate “Neighboring Sunday,” in March or anytime that is right to lift up being a good neighbor — which is, of course, any time. The Presbyterian Mission Agency has developed resources for worship, service and retreats to encourage children of all ages and their communities to care about their neighborhoods. The Office of Christian Formation in partnership with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program has compiled and updated these resources on the mission agency’s site.

Over the last three years and especially in the month of March, Presbyterian congregations across the country shared their stories about how observing this special day has impacted their congregations and its neighbors. Here are some of the ways Presbyterian churches around the country celebrated last month.

The Rev. Patrick David Heery of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York. (Photo courtesy of Jill Fandrich)

After showing the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” earlier in the week, the Rev. Patrick David Heery channeled Mister Rogers at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York at the beginning of worship.

Jill Reichert, director of Children and Family Ministries of Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania, “honored Mister Rogers’ ministry of inclusion, acceptance and love” in an intergenerational vespers service she holds once a month.

Other churches put aside their cardigans and felt inspired to do book and clothing drives.

Faithbridge Presbyterian Church in Frisco, Texas had people donate books for their preschool to honor Rogers’ commitment to early childhood learning. First Presbyterian Church of Fulton, Missouri celebrated Mr. Rogers’ Sunday for the first time on Sunday, March 19, the day before what would have been Rogers’ 95th birthday. “I incorporated the liturgical resources that were specially developed, including the hymn, ‘Jesus, Teach Us to be Neighbors,’” said the Rev. Aaron J. White, the church’s pastor. White reported that the worship was so meaningful that it sparked a conversation about expanding the celebration next year to include “a collection of sweaters and socks.”

Sue Curtis, a member of First Presbyterian Church of Troy, Ohio, gave out kindness and chocolate at the For All Seasons Gift Shop. (Contributed photo)

With a child-like fervor, First Presbyterian Church in Troy, Ohio celebrated the special birthday all week long, posting on social media about the ways the church and its neighbors were spreading the spirit of care and welcome. On Sunday, the leadership kicked off the week of neighborliness with cupcakes, a brief presentation in worship and a call to action to make use of the cards and small gifts made available for individuals to deliver to their neighbors. Members posted on the church’s Facebook page throughout the week about the ways they showed love to their neighbors or times they caught a neighbor serving others. Church leaders appeared on a local radio show and made a presentation about the day to community leaders inspiring individuals from the sheriff’s department, Troy’s public schools and local businesses to get involved. Captain Tom Wheeler of the Miami County Sheriff’s department oversaw a large donation of food to the community food trucks. Church member Sue Curtis passed out kindness bracelets and chocolates all week to anyone who visited her gift shop. Church volunteers handed donuts to visitors to their community feeding ministry, the “Breakfast Club.”

Some of the resources, like “Building a Neighborhood Together: An Intergenerational Peacemaking Project”  provided by the Presbyterian Mission Agency, focus on longer-term projects than can be accomplished in one Sunday service. The resource, updated last fall, debuted in 1996 as a collaboration between the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and Family Communications Inc. (now Fred Rogers Productions), which produced “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The project centers on a “neighborhood build” that Hedda Sharapan, one of the producers for the show, had first organized in a Presbyterian church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1973. “The process for building a neighborhood out of boxes and everyday household supplies is an activity for all ages working together,” noted Janet Hayes, mission specialist for the Office of Christian Formation, who emphasized how the build incorporates the best of Fred Rogers’ ideas about relationships, creative play, pride in making thinks, family communication and community.

The County Theater was considered by children ages 4-10 to be an essential place at Doylestown Presbyterian Church’s neighborhood build. (Contributed photo)

The Rev. Becca Bateman shared her experience of doing a “neighborhood build” the previous year. Over four Sundays, children from pre-Kindergarten to 4th grade at Doylestown Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania focused on defining what a neighborhood was, identifying who their neighbor was, and brainstorming how to best love them. According to Bateman, the kids drew powerful connections between Mr. Rogers, the Golden Rule, and the Bible.

Bateman identified a picture book published by Flyaway Books, an imprint of Westminster John Knox Press: “We read and reflected on the book, ‘Who is My Neighbor?’ by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso to understand why it isn’t so easy to love your neighbors.”

Bateman described their activities: “Together they worked to build 5-10 models of essential buildings, noting when working together was difficult, when they believed they helped the most and finally what made them feel theirs was a peaceful community. They added mailboxes and made real mail to send to friends and strangers to spread love and kindness. By the end of the fourth week, we had 20 colorful boxes connecting our neighborhood. We learned that what brings a neighborhood together is community, and when people get together it can sometimes be challenging, but worth it.”

An invitation from the Facebook page of First Presbyterian Church in Troy, Ohio. (Contributed image)

A new version of a resource developed by Fred Rogers and Barbara Marsh and updated by Vickie Caro Dieth is now available for download on the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s website. The resource, called “Peacemaking in the Family,” includes four sessions for intergenerational events and cultivates an appreciation for emotional awareness, relationship boundaries, resilience, and celebrations in family systems.

Presbyterians aren’t inclined to sanctify individual saints. But judging from how fast Mister Rogers Day is catching on in congregations from New York to Missouri, churches are not above venerating a great neighbor.

To plan your “Neighboring Sunday” or intergenerational peacemaking retreat or series, check out the resources curated by the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Christian Formation, or attend Faith Formation Leaders Connection. May’s topic will cover resources for children’s Christian formation. Groups will convene on Zoom at 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday, May 11, and at 8 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, May 23. To access links and details, join the  Office of Christian Formation Facebook group.

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