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The surprising success — and faith — of ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’

Fred Rogers, left, with Francois Scarborough Clemmons on the show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Photo by John Beale via Focus Features

(RNS) — There’s a moment near the beginning of the documentary film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — as the trolley that transported millions of children to the Neighborhood of Make Believe is taken out of its box and Fred Rogers’ familiar sneakers are set next to a bench — when Margy Whitmer muses on the success of the show she produced for many years.

“We had a director who once said to me, if you take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’: low production values, simple set, an unlikely star,” she said.

“Yet it worked, because it was saying something really important.”

The same might be said of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” itself.

Over the weekend, the film, having expanded to 893 screens across the country, topped the $10 million mark at the box office, passing “RBG,” a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to become the highest-grossing documentary of the year, according to Aspiration Entertainment. Initially opening on 29 screens on June 8, it nearly doubled its reach from 350 to 650 just before the Fourth of July holiday.

Fred Rogers with Daniel Tiger from his show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Photo by John Beale via Focus Features

Celebrities from Dan Rather to Korie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” have tweeted about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Moviegoers in Tampa, Fla., threw a Mister Rogers block party in front of a theater, collecting sweaters and sneakers for children. Presbyterians sang along to the show’s iconic theme song as the trailer for the film rolled at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s denominational meeting. Prominent pastor Mark Batterson’s National Community Church in the Washington, D.C., area is in the middle of a sermon series titled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago hosted a private screening for its JUF Young Families group.

Filmmaker Morgan Neville said he’s screened the documentary now for “every possible kind of audience.” Neville, who also wrote and directed the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” had hoped to make a film that would find common ground, but “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” has “exceeded any expectation,” he said. 

From the first screening, “it took on a life of its own,” he said.

“This has only happened to me once or twice in my career, where a film hits a nerve where it no longer feels like your film. The audience takes ownership of it and feels that it says something personal to them. It’s kind of magic when it happens.”

Perhaps the success of a documentary about a slow-paced children’s show hosted by a kind, soft-spoken Presbyterian minister shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, the success of the children’s show was itself a surprise and its host, an unlikely celebrity.

So unassuming was Rogers that it is surprising to see how strongly his faith comes out in the film.

Yet it’s there, sometimes in sarcasm, as when Rogers’ son John muses about the difficulty of growing up with the “second Christ” for a dad. It’s there in Fred Rogers’ ordination as an evangelist for television, which was “way out there for the Presbyterian Church,” according to his wife, Joanne Rogers.

It’s there in the title of the documentary — and the show itself.

“This word ‘neighbor’ wasn’t something Fred came up with out of nowhere. It was biblical,” said the Rev. George Wirth, a friend and fellow Presbyterian minister who called Rogers “a man of deep faith.”

It came from Jesus’ words “love your neighbor as yourself”  and the parable Jesus told in response to the question “Who is my neighbor?,” in which the so-called good Samaritan cares for a man who had been beaten and left by the roadside.

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the books Rogers wrote and the speeches he gave all came from that core — “the spiritual center of Fred Rogers,” according to Wirth.

“He was a community builder. The neighborhood was symbolic of Fred Rogers’ desire for people to live together in peace, with respect and love and affirmation, and when things go wrong, forgiveness and reconciliation,” he said.

Rogers not only took his own faith seriously, but also he studied Judaism, Islam and other traditions. Wirth recalled spending a week in Toronto with Rogers visiting Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen.

“I think the bottom line for him was he believed all people are created in the image of God. He saw everyone in that light: created in the image of God,” Wirth said. “That crosses all the religious boundaries, all the race, all the ethnic boundaries — all of God’s children are created in God’s image.” 

But Rogers never explicitly mentioned his faith on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” 

“He wasn’t doing that to hide his Christian identity,”said Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. “I think Fred was very adamant that he didn’t want any viewer — child or adult — to feel excluded from the neighborhood.” If the message of the show appeared to be denominational or even Christian, he said, viewers might feel that they didn’t belong.

Growing up in a wealthy Presbyterian family in Latrobe, Rogers learned a Protestant work ethic and frugality that he carried into his work on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” according to Li.

Rogers’ parents also modeled the importance of giving — his mother often bought presents for hundreds of people in town at the holidays, and though his father kept a ledger of every townsperson and employee who had borrowed money from him, he never collected any of it. For Rogers, Li said, that came to mean “recognizing everyone has something worth giving. You could go to the lowest and the least and the youngest, and you fundamentally respect they have something to give.”

Ultimately, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a show about hope and reconciliation, a word Li said meant a lot to Rogers. He wanted to mend broken relationships: between people, between humans and the environment, even — though he never made it explicit — between humans and their creator.

“That breaking of a relationship between each of us with our creator, in Fred’s world, would be that you no longer believe that you are worthwhile,” Li said.

Viewers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran from 1968 to 2001, now range in age from their 20s to 50s and many express a feeling of kinship, not to say neighborliness, with Rogers.

Filmmaker Neville is one of them. He hadn’t thought about the show in a long time, he said. But over the past six or seven years, Rogers kept reappearing in his life, and “every time I did, it just made me feel like, God, we need more of that in our culture today. Where is that kind of voice?”

Neville declined to comment on his own faith, but he said he believed messages like Rogers’ “do make a difference and hopefully change how people think.”

“We the people need to stand up and say, ‘That’s not OK. We need to look out for each other. United we stand, divided we fall.’ These are very basic ideals that I feel like nobody is advocating for anymore,” he said.

“That’s why we need Fred Rogers.”

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

23 Comments

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  • Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was the first TV show that my kids watched and the only one for quite some time.

  • Fred Rogers is one of the few -positive- role models of Christianity in America. Or rather, he was. His fine example is missed by all people of goodwill.

  • Couple of obscure reasons why I think Fred Rogers was an awesome human being:

    1. Public Television and the educational programming on it, exists because of his efforts in fighting for it in Congressional hearings on the subject.

    2. Fred Rogers testified to SCOTUS for the right of people to record television from their homes.

    3. He gave the first big breaks to George Romero and Michael Keaton by virtue of having the most active TV production in the Pittsburgh area at the time.

    4. He had a great sense of humor about himself and image. He thought well of Eddie Murphy’s parody “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” .

    5. His Post 9/11 message of seeking helpers and the implied message for adults to be helpers was a wonderful example of finding humanity and grace in a horrific situation.

    6. How he effectively hid his past as a marine sniper in the Vietnam War. Just kidding. 🙂

  • I saw the movie last night, though I never watched his program. What a sweet, kind man!

  • Excellent documentary. Fred Rogers would certainly have been a better President than the incompetent bully we have now.

  • “That crosses all the religious boundaries, all the race, all the ethnic boundaries — all of God’s children are created in God’s image.”
    “….George Wirth, a friend and fellow Presbyterian minister….”

    “I think Fred was very adamant that he didn’t want any viewer — child or adult — to feel excluded from the neighborhood.”
    ” ….Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center….

    Wirth’s comment is exclusionary, and not representative of Roger’s humanistic contribution.
    Li’s comment is inclusive.

    The word ” neighborhood ” as Roger’s used it was intended to unite Man.

    Unlike Religion….

  • Let’s see now. The statement “All of God’s children are created in God”s image,” is somehow exclusionary.

    So please specify who is excluded?

  • I loved listening to Mr. Rogers Neighborhood as a child. It was very loving and inspiring. Although Mr. Rogers studied many religions, we can’t assume that he accepted all faiths as truth. He just wanted to understand what they were about. God loves all people, but we must be clear that all religions do not lead to God. I believe speaking the truth about Jesus Christ being the only way to eternal life doesn’t exclude anyone. It’s a message for everyone. Those who don’t believe Jesus is the only way to eternal life exclude themselves. Jesus said to love your neighbor as I have loved you. John 13:34. So Mr. Rogers taught what Jesus said. He probably didn’t include the name of Jesus in his show because he knew the mainstream media wouldn’t accept his show. In fact they would have excluded him. If Mr. Rogers talked about Bhudda, Confucius or something New Age it would have been fine. But teaching the world that Jesus is the truth is a message that has almost always been excluded on television. Now more than ever. So I’m glad we see today that Mr. Rogers’ show was rooted in the truth and words of Jesus Christ. He was talking about the importance of being neighborly. Let’s not twist the message of the show by insinuating in this article that Mr. Rogers was speaking about including all faiths as the truth. John 3:16- “For God so LOVED the world that he gave his only begotten son (JESUS) that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”

  • We really miss the congeniality of another time and religion done nicely by so-called government TV, no?

  • All other humans worldwide who do not worship the Abrahamic God.

    But that’s rather obvious –

    Right ?

  • What isn’t mentioned, here at least, is that the Black man in the photo of Fred and the policeman with their feet in the water was gay. He had a job on Fred’s show, as long as no one found out that he was gay.

    Christian love and inclusion only went so far in Mr Roger’s Neighborhood.

  • “we must be clear that all religions do not lead to God”

    Someone who clearly missed the point by a wide margin.

    Although you heard the words of Fred Rogers, you chose not to understand it. Imputing your own sectarian bias and hostility onto him as a way to justify rather unneighbourly feelings towards others.

    The idea of using religion to act inhumanely and maliciously to others, which you seem to support, was alien to the message of the show and Fred Rogers’ public life.

  • As for me, I honestly preferred Space Ghost and The Herculoids. Their ethics were very easy to understand: Don’t try to steal, kill, enslave the galaxy, or throw a bunch of monsters and robots at everybody. Otherwise you’ll have to eat a bunch of exploding Destructo-Rays and Energy-Rocks, and afterwards they’d put you on a Prison Rocket for the nearest Space Pen where you belonged. Simple and ethical.

    But having said that, your post is honestly perfect for this particular thread. Mr. Rogers was a quiet Christian media revolutionary who kept it simple, a stealth minister with a huge impact. But as you see, everybody now want to remake Mr.Rogers into their own image, so sincere thanks for explaining the Bible-truth on the situation.

  • The problem wasn’t Rogers’ views of gays, it was the public’s. Clemmons was outed in a complaint about his appearance at a gay bar. This type of scandal was likely to get the show cancelled by powers that be.

    Both Clemmons and Rogers acknowledged it had nothing to do with personal feelings. Rogers was supportive for the time.

    The early 70’s was not exactly a safe time to be openly gay. It was still criminalized in parts of the country. You really didn’t see openly and obviously gay characters on TV until much later in the decade and early 80’s. For example Soap caught a lot of flak for being a pioneer in this regard in 1979. A show 5 years later and in an evening adult time slot.

  • Umm, I already know you do not worship God. You probably hate His guts like an Atheist Boo-Boo Worm. So What? That don’t change anything. Today’s evidence says Patrick is created in the image of God. You are not a Boo-Boo Worm!

    Oh sure, I get it. If you admit that Patrick is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26, and see the evidence link below), and that He intentionally placed Patrick on Earth for a huge purpose at this moment in history (Jer. 29:11), then your little skeptic pals won’t play marbles with you no more. So What?

    So let them deal in fantasy, while YOU deal in evidence. Check this out:
    http://www.godandscience.org/evolution/imageofgod.html

  • Yes, Black folks heard pretty much the same things all of their lives. Nothing changes until enough folks step out and make the change. Keep up the apologist excuses.

  • Fair enough. I am not going to argue the point. It was not his finest moment and needed to be pointed out.

  • If you want to reference accurate scientific knowledge, you must skeptically check out your source.

    We are not unique in the sense that we were created separately from animals. We are a unique species in many other ways. We evolved from an ancestor of the bonobo’s and chimpanzees. In spite of our many outstanding qualities, we are also animals.

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