Fred Rogers (IMDB)
My mother has dementia. We moved her into a memory care facility near my sister in North Carolina. When I visited in December, I took her to a matinee of “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” I knew Mom would enjoy it, but I had no idea just how richly the film would bless me.
My parents purchased a 12-inch black-and-white Sony TV in 1967, just in time for the first episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He was my hero, the first man I wanted to marry (after my Daddy and our dog, Barney). Mr. Rogers’ peaceful nature, his kindness, his reliability all made me feel safe in the midst of a tumultuous and lonely childhood.
The movie tells the story of a writer named Tom Junod, who wrote an article about Mr. Rogers for Esquire Magazine in November of 1998. It conveys the extraordinary healing that the author experienced from his own childhood trauma, through experiencing God’s grace and unconditional love in his encounter with a Presbyterian minister named Fred Rogers.
It was odd and yet quite lovely to watch that film with my mother. I looked over at her from time to time. Mom was unperturbed by any regret or awkwardness that might have presented (but never did) before dementia settled in. Now, she is a frail, old woman with a heart that was broken, a spirit that was crushed long before she ever became my mother. I felt love come over me and fill my eyes for a moment with the kind of tears that are prayers of regret and forgiveness and grace and gratitude. When we said good-bye, I hugged her for a long time.
Gifted with an unplanned 90 minutes of free time when my flight home was delayed, I Googled Junod’s original article.
In real life, the Rev. Fred Rogers was consistently the same Mr. Rogers whom we knew from television. He worked at being authentic every day, every moment. He awoke at 5:30 every morning to read scripture, to pray for everyone who asked him for prayer and to swim laps at the local pool. He didn’t smoke or drink or eat meat, simply saying, “I can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.” He went to bed on time, woke up on time and didn’t watch TV. He was a man of deep and disciplined faith.
The article is well worth reading. I commend it to you. It relays many stories, one of which was about a boy with cerebral palsy, who idolized Mr. Rogers. When given the opportunity to meet him, the boy was overwhelmed. Mr. Rogers waited patiently for him to be ready. When the boy did return, Mister Rogers said, "I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?" The boy answered yes, he would do anything for Mister Rogers. "I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?"
“Nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever. The boy had always been prayed for. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers, and he said he'd try, because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean God likes him, too.”
“As for Mister Rogers himself, well, he doesn't look at the story in the same way that the boy did or that I did. In fact, when Mister Rogers first told me the story, I complimented him on being so smart — for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself — and Mister Rogers responded by looking at me at first with puzzlement and then with surprise. "Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn't ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession."
This is the essence of communion – praying with and for one another in equal measure, with the deep understanding that each of us is essential to God and to our common life. Each one of us – whether triumphant and strong in this moment, or lost and lonely – is closer to God that we can imagine. Father Gerard Dorgan, the parish priest who served the Catholic patients at Kaplan Family Hospice House for many years before he became too frail, used to quote St. Augustine frequently: “God loves each one of us, as if there were only one of us.”
I would like to ask you to do something for me, please. I would like you to pray for me, because anyone who has gone through the challenges that you have faced and those you face now, must be very close to God. I will pray for you, too.
About the author
Rev. Rona Tyndall, M.Div., of the West Gloucester Trinitarian Congregational Church, is also the Senior Chaplain at Care Dimensions.
This article originally appeared as a column in the Gloucester Daily Times.