American television personality, musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers died in 2003 but his influence seems to be growing stronger each year. He was known as the creator, composer, producer, head writer, showrunner, and host of the preschool PBS television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968–2001), known for its slow pace and calm manner. What is the spiritual legacy Mr. Rogers left for all of us?
Bible Gateway interviewed Amy Hollingsworth (@AmyHollingswrth), author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor (Thomas Nelson, 2007).
How did you first come to meet Mister Rogers? And how did you become friends?
Amy Hollingsworth: I actually discovered Mister Rogers for the first time through the eyes of my two-year-old son. I was working in television at the time, and when I approached my network about interviewing him, they warned me they had been trying to secure an interview for 20 years without success. I reached out to Fred Rogers’ press agent (who plays Mr. McFeely on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood!), but weeks went by without a response.
Then, one evening, I was reading the newspaper and discovered a mean-spirited editorial calling out Mister Rogers and his “psychobabble.” I wrote a strong letter defending Mister Rogers to the syndicated columnist and sent a copy of my letter and the article to Fred Rogers’ publicist, as a heads-up about the bad press.
A short time later, I got the call that Fred had agreed to the interview. My defense of him—not as a journalist but as the mother of small children—convinced him I was sincere enough to be trusted.
That trust formed the basis of what he called our “enduring friendship.” I was able to spend time with him in his Neighborhood then and again two years later, and we’d often call each other and write letters back and forth for the nine years before he passed away.
What is the spiritual significance of “taking time” and “silence” that Mister Rogers exhibited?
Amy Hollingsworth: This is one of Mister Rogers’ most important legacies. The first time I met him, he told me: “It seems to me that our world needs more time to wonder and to reflect about what is inside, and if we take time we can often go much deeper as far as our spiritual life is concerned than we can if there’s constant distraction. And often television gives such constant distraction—noise and fast-paced things—which doesn’t allow us to take time to explore the deeper levels of who we are—and who we can become.”
Closely related to his encouragement to slow down and take time was Fred’s emphasis on silence. It wasn’t just the absence of noise he advocated, though. It was the silence that reflects on the goodness of God, the goodness of what and whom he made. Silence to think about those who’ve helped us. He knew that silence leads to reflection, that reflection leads to appreciation, and that appreciation looks about for someone to thank: “I trust they will thank God, for it is God who inspires and informs all that is nourishing and good,” he once said.
Fred always allowed time for silence: at the end of the many commencement speeches he delivered, when he famously accepted the Emmy for Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and even when invited to the White House. That singular practice of his is represented beautifully in the new Tom Hanks’ film coming out this month, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
How did Mister Rogers depend on prayer?
Amy Hollingsworth: I think one of the biggest misconceptions about Fred Rogers is that his goodness and kindness were inherent; simply part of his essential nature. That was, of course, true, but only partly true: what people miss is that he carefully cultivated the kind of person he wanted to be. He awoke early every morning for a time of prayer and reflection. In those times of prayer and even silence, he was becoming the person we would all grow to love and revere.
In the new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Fred is shown praying for people by name while kneeling at his bedside. He is reading their names out of a little book he kept. I know that my name was in that book, because Fred prayed for me and my family every day, and I prayed for him as well. We were in each other’s little books.
He didn’t stop there, though. He prayed throughout the day (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
What did he mean when he said he was convinced “the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground”?
Amy Hollingsworth: I love this quote, and Fred could be seen saying it in the documentary that came out last summer. And his wife Joanne quotes it in the introduction to the new Tom Hanks’ film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But when he told me this idea, he elaborated on it. And I think that provides the missing piece.
He said: “I’m so convinced that the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground. And what we put on the television can, by the Holy Spirit, be translated into what this person needs to hear and see, and without that translation it’s all dross as far as I’m concerned.”
“And that translation, that’s happened many, many times, hasn’t it?” I asked.
“It surely has. Yes. In fact, there have been times when people have said, ‘You know that program in which you did such and such and said such and such,’ and I’ll look back at the script, I hadn’t said that at all—but that person would say to me, ‘That meant so much to me.’ And I thought, ‘Well, happily, you got the words that you needed at that moment.’”
That translation by the Holy Spirit, as Fred describes it, has resulted in countless stories about viewers in need who have responded to the content of the Neighborhood episodes in miraculous ways. I recount many of those stories in The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers.
What role did the Bible have in Mister Rogers’ life?
Amy Hollingsworth: There’s a powerful scene in the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood where Fred’s wife Joanne bristles at his being called a living saint—because it sounds as if his way of life is unattainable. She then goes on to say that he does things every day that help to ground him. And the first of those practices is reading the Scriptures. He woke up at five every morning for a time of prayer, reflection, and Bible reading. It was his daily ritual because his faith was foundational to everything he did throughout the day.
How did Mister Rogers’ view of being a good neighbor compare with Jesus’ description of a good neighbor?
Amy Hollingsworth: I like to call it Mister Rogers’ theology of neighbor. Fred’s definition of neighbor was simple: whoever you happen to be with at the moment. This is even more the case if the person you happen to be with is in need, as was the waylaid traveler in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
Once we know there are no loopholes, we have a choice. The choice, Fred said, is whether to be an advocate or an accuser. On one side of the spectrum stands the evil one, the accuser. Fred told me, “Evil would like nothing better than to have us feel awful about who we are. And that would be back in here [in our minds], and we’d look through those eyes at our neighbor, and see only what’s awful—in fact, look for what’s awful in our neighbor.”
On the other side of the accuser stands Jesus, our advocate. “But Jesus would want us to feel as good as possible about God’s creation within us,” Fred continued, “and in here [in our minds], we would look through those eyes, and see what’s wonderful about our neighbor. I often think about that.”
That’s a powerful lesson: Whoever you happen to be with at the moment is your neighbor, especially if the person is in need. Once you realize that, you have a choice to make: you can either be an advocate for— or an accuser of—your neighbor.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Amy Hollingsworth: I use Bible Gateway all the time! In fact, I used it to look up the Bible verses in this interview. I love the ease of use, and I love the ability to see the Scriptures in multiple and diverse translations. For example, this rendering of Matthew 11:29 in The Message is one I return to almost daily: “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”
The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Amy Hollingsworth is the author of five books, including Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World, Holy Curiosity: Cultivating the Creative Spirit in Everyday Life, and the bestselling The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, which last summer earned a spot on The Wall Street Journal’s bestsellers’ list and was ranked as Amazon’s #1 Best Seller in Christian Inspiration. A former psychology professor, Amy is the mother of two grown children, both writers, and lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with her husband Jeff. www.AmyHollingsworth.com
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