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Mister Rogers conference provides novel platform for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Educate a Child initiative

SDOP Coordinator Alonzo Johnson was a co-presenter and shared personal memories

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Fred Rogers with King Friday XIII, ruler of the Neighborhood of Make Believe. Rogers was ordained by the Pittsburgh Presbytery and encouraged to continue his ministry call to children through the media. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Growing up in northern New Jersey, a younger version of the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson watched in awe as Fred Rogers welcomed a break-dancer onto the groundbreaking television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in the 1980s.

Breakdancing was considered scary or threatening to some in mainstream culture at the time, but Rogers warmly greeted the dancer, a Black youth with a boombox and a cardboard mat, and encouraged him to show off his skills to viewers. The cardigan-clad host even tried a few of the moves himself.

“This was really revelatory for me because it was about appreciating the art” but also about “accepting young, Black children” as a part of the neighborhood, said Johnson, who serves as convener of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Educate a Child, Transform the World roundtable. “There’s something really theologically powerful, something socially powerful about this episode for me.”

A clip from that episode was played as part of a presentation by Johnson and Renee Danyo, an Educate a Child roundtable member, during a national conference that lifted up the life’s work of Rogers, a Presbyterian minister who used his mild-mannered hosting style to spread compassion in the world while educating and entertaining children and families on public television.

“This is a person that was really incredibly pure, spiritually,” Johnson said, and he struggled with societal questions, such as “Why do we hate each other so much and why are people making life for children so hard?”

Johnson and Danyo were co-presenters at The Work of Fred Rogers: A Conference on His Context and Legacy. Billed as the first conference dedicated to the academic study of the work of Fred Rogers, the event was held June 16-17 at the Fred Rogers Institute at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Johnson and Danyo gave a workshop highlighting Rogers’ connections to the PC(USA) as a minister of word and sacrament as well as his penchant for social justice. They also pointed participants to useful resources.

Rogers was on a “mission to minister to children and their families through the media” and both “his faith and religion influenced the television show, ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ yet he never mentions faith explicitly in the show,” said Danyo, a ruling elder and education consultant in Detroit who helps coach schools on improving the mathematical achievement of students from marginalized communities.

The conference served as an outlet for “scholars from a wide range of fields to reflect on Fred Rogers’ place” in American culture and other arenas, according to the event website.

The conference also provided an opportunity to highlight Educate a Child, Transform the World, an initiative that calls on Presbyterians to work together to ensure that children have access to equitable, accessible, quality education.

The Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson and Renee Danyo were co-presenters at The Work of Fred Rogers: A Conference on his Context and Legacy. (Photo courtesy of Johnson and Danyo)

The roundtable “supports child advocacy,” Danyo said. “I wanted to support the Fred Rogers Institute in uplifting Fred Rogers’ legacy and uplift the voices of children and their parents and caregivers. Also, I saw it as a way to build relationships with other organizations that are connected to Fred Rogers and child advocacy.”

Danyo said she also thought it was important to let attendees know that there is an Educate a Child covenant, and members of the Educate a Child roundtable are eager to get it into the hands of more people and congregations.

The covenant, which can be downloaded here, stresses the importance of these actions:

  • Direct service: Providing concrete ministries that embody God’s compassion and commitment to meet the needs of children and youth, especially those who are vulnerable, discounted and marginalized.
  • Consciousness raising: Joining the journey of solidarity by seeking to understand the root causes of injustice through critical examination and reflection on the most pressing challenges of children and families living in at-risk settings.
  • Systemic Change: Working for social transformation, with an emphasis on root causes, and joining the Spirit’s work of shaping a world more consistent with God’s best intention for all people.
  • Christian Disciplines: This involves helping to propel, ground and sustain the work of justice with and for children and their families. An example would be committing to personally pray for children, families, teachers, administrators and local schools.

Educate a Child aligns with the PC(USA) public education policy “Loving Our Neighbors: Equity and Quality in Public Education (K-12).”

Other important resources included “Peacemaking in the Family” and “Building a Neighborhood Together: An Intergenerational Peacemaking Project,” which are both available through the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, which was consulted for the presentation.

While discussing Educate a Child, Johnson and Danyo related things that Rogers said, such as “Look for the helpers,” to parts of the covenant. For example, helpers could be people in the church who provide direct services, such as offering early childhood programs for preschool children, filling backpacks or offering tutoring to children, Johnson said.

Participants also were given a chance to talk about things they thought should be part of a diverse neighborhood.

“Somebody said grocery stores,” noted Johnson, who shared an example of how relevant that is. “There are counties in this country that are considered food deserts where there are not many options for affordable and nutritious food.”

Attendees provided good feedback on the workshop, with one noting that she plans to attend school board meetings to make a difference in her community, said Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People.

Johnson said it’s important for churches to get involved in advocating for children and providing for their needs, as well as those of families and area teachers, even if there are few youngsters in the congregation.

“Talk to people in the community. Have conversations with folks,” Johnson said. “Think about what their needs are,” which might include safe space for youths to be creative or to talk. You may not have children in your church, but that does not mean they do not exist.”

Also, think about the challenges of their parents, who may lack adequate transportation. “Parents need to get to work,” Johnson said. “Send Uber gift cards to parents so that they can get to work and get groceries for the children.”

The bottom line is that “as God’s people, we are called to love and support children,” Johnson said.

The Educate a Child, Transform the World initiative is supported by your gifts to the Pentecost Offering. The work of Self-Development of People is made possible thanks to your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing. SDOP is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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