A few weeks ago, on one of the most beautiful afternoons we’ve had so far this spring, I drove a few miles up the highway to meet a colleague, who is also a dear soul friend. Interstate-81 notwithstanding, it was a gorgeous drive, throughout which I gave thanks for both the beauty of this piece of Virginia I call home, and the joy of meeting with my clergy friend, who serves outside of DC. The icing on the cake was listening to a series of episodes of the podcast “Welcome to the Neighborhood: A Mister Rogers Tribute Podcast.”(1) I could feel my breath deepening, my pulse slowing, and feel-good chemicals dancing in my body.
I’ve been doing a bit of reading and research about Mr. Rogers in preparation for my church’s Pentecost season series. What a hardship! (ha!) It’s been 20 years since his untimely death to stomach cancer, but his legacy is still going strong. In recent years, I think we’ve all needed his messages and ministry more than ever before.
Mr. Rogers is probably the best known Presbyterian minister, even if many don’t know he was a Presbyterian minister. He was ordained in 1963 by Pittsburgh Presbytery to the unique call of working with children and their families through mass media, a calling he served faithfully for 4 decades. His ministry changed the lives of countless individuals. Every day, he used every opportunity to let people know that their most authentic selves were wonderful, and loved completely, just as they are. It was a simple message that couldn’t be more profound.
We know that children have been impacted positively by his show – especially those who came from more challenging circumstances. But I’ve also been moved to hear stories of individuals who experienced watershed moments when happening upon his show again in adulthood – in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond. We never outgrow the need to hear how deeply and unconditionally loved we are, just as we are.
The month of May is, among other things, National Mental Health Awareness Month. I encourage you to visit https://www.nami.org/home to learn more about mental health challenges and resources. At least twenty percent of adults struggle with mental health challenges, and 1 in 20 face severe mental illness. We’re also seeing huge numbers of young people struggling with mental health crises. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children ages 10-14 (2).
The statistics are staggering, but they are far more than statistics. They are people we work with, worship with, and people in our neighborhoods. They are people we love, and call family. And some reading this are among that 1 in 20. I love and am related, by biological and non-biological family ties, to a few in that number. It’s so hard, and devastating, to see people you love so dearly struggle so acutely.
There is still a lot of stigma around mental illness, often especially in the church. Unfortunately there is a lot of bad theology out there that promotes the idea that if you really love Jesus, you can’t be depressed, or hopeless, or bipolar, or anything else like it. That’s a load of lies. As another friend and colleague says, “Faith is not an anti-depressant. It cannot be swallowed in order to re-wire our brains for happiness”(3). That colleague, the Rev. Dr. Sarah Griffith Lund, has written books sharing her own stories and encouraging churches to break the silence and stigma around mental illness. “Blessed are the Crazy,” “Blessed Union,” and “Blessed Youth” are all excellent resources (4).
As my church prepares to enter the “Neighborhood” this summer, I am reminded that so many in our neighborhood, in our families, in our lives, have struggled or still struggle with mental illness. Watching Mr. Roger’s episodes might not be a cure-all, but it certainly doesn’t hurt! Mr. Rogers would certainly want us to live authentically with each other, struggles and all. And he would be the first to say, “You are loved. Just as you are.” I encourage you to take less than 2 minutes to listen to him sing, “It’s You I Like”. Unlike the general best wisdom of internet use, I actually encourage you to read the comments on this one.
And in case you haven’t heard it yet today, I like you, and I love you, just the way you are.
Rev. Stephanie Sorge serves as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, VA.