Sunday, February 05, 2006

Visiting again with neighbor Fred Rogers

Tonight at my EFM class, I was signed up to lead worship, which meant bringing the munchies and leading the opening and closing prayer. Thankfully, Demetrius helped me out with some of the baking, because I kept getting sidetracked while looking for something to use as a prayer. I had thought of using something from Desmond Tutu and something from Fred Rogers. I was thinking there would be something good from Fred Rogers in the book Important Things to Remember, which is a collection of brief reflections that his wife Joanne assembled into a book after his death. But I don't actually have a copy of that book, so I tried to search for some excerpts online. I kept coming across stories I'd never seen before. And getting weepy. Anyway, I'd like to share some of what I found, in case others hadn't seen some of these stories before.

The first thing I found this morning was this article from Esquire, entitled Remembering Mister Rogers. The author, Tom Junod, had done a profile of Fred Rogers several years earlier, and had stayed in touch with him ever since that time...

once you entered into Fred's life, well, there was no doubt that he would enter into yours. He was not only the kindest man I'd ever met but also one of the most fiercely disciplined, to the degree that he saw nothing but the good in other human beings. When he saw the good in me, he fixed on it, and there was a never a moment in which he didn't try to make me live up to it, by word, or by example, or, most often, by prayer.

Junod goes on to write that it was a source of regret when Fred Rogers died that his wife Janet had never had the opportunity to meet him personally. But he did touch her life, as the author goes on to say, after Janet had received a hurtful verbal attack during a phone conversation on Christmas Eve.
Janet has lived a nearly blameless life; she has never been attacked that way, ever, especially by somebody with whom she supposed a bond, and that night, when we went to bed, she couldn't sleep. She was consumed with anger and ill wishes, and as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day, she was still awake, and still tortured by what the attack had done to her own spirit. Finally, in near desperation, the thought came to her: "What would Mister Rogers do?" And the answer came nearly as quickly: "Pray."

She prayed for the man who had attacked her. The prayers did not come easily, but at three in the morning, she prayed that he might find relief for his unhappiness—that he might still find a way to be happy. She went to sleep, and when she told me, on Christmas morning, what she had done, I went out to my office and called Fred. "How sweet of you, Tom, to share that story with me on Christmas," he said, sounding, as he always did, exactly like Mister Rogers. "How special." He never told me he was sick, and I never asked. He did, however, inform me that he was still praying for me, for Janet, and for a troubled member of our family whom he had never met. I had no doubt, then, that he was a man whose prayers were answered. I have no doubt that his prayers are answered still.

I also found this in a sermon by Dave Weissbard at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rockford, Illinois. He describes what happened when Fred Rogers visited Chataqua some time in the early 1990s.
It was an unscheduled visit. He was there to see some folks and agreed to an informal gathering to meet fans. It was announced at the end of the morning lecture that there would be an opportunity to meet Mr. Rogers that afternoon at 4:00 at Norton Hall, the auditorium at which the operas are performed. The place was packed. He finally arrived and walked out on the stage to tumultuous applause - a standing ovation. He spoke for about 10 minutes and then announced he would accept questions. There were several, and then a woman stood up and asked what she, as a grandmother could do. He son and daughter-in-law were getting divorced and she was afraid she was going to lose contact with her grandchildren whom she adored. And then she broke down. It still wipes me out. Mr. Rogers put down his microphone and ignored the other 999 of us and went down into the audience and put his arms around that grandmother and talked only to her for 5 or 10 minutes while we waited, patiently. I knew, at that moment, as did the rest of his neighbors, that we were in the presence of a saint.

Then I went back to look at the profile Tom Junod had written for Esquire back in 1998, entitled, Can you say hero? The article is 10 pages long, and includes this amazing story. I think I remember reading it when it appeared in the magazine all those years ago, but it still brought tears and amazement when I read it a second time.
ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a boy who didn't like himself very much. It was not his fault. He was born with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is something that happens to the brain. It means that you can think but sometimes can't walk, or even talk. This boy had a very bad case of cerebral palsy, and when he was still a little boy, some of the people entrusted to take care of him took advantage of him instead and did things to him that made him think that he was a very bad little boy, because only a bad little boy would have to live with the things he had to live with. In fact, when the little boy grew up to be a teenager, he would get so mad at himself that he would hit himself, hard, with his own fists and tell his mother, on the computer he used for a mouth, that he didn't want to live anymore, for he was sure that God didn't like what was inside him any more than he did. He had always loved Mister Rogers, though, and now, even when he was fourteen years old, he watched the Neighborhood whenever it was on, and the boy's mother sometimes thought that Mister Rogers was keeping her son alive. She and the boy lived together in a city in California, and although she wanted very much for her son to meet Mister Rogers, she knew that he was far too disabled to travel all the way to Pittsburgh, so she figured he would never meet his hero, until one day she learned through a special foundation designed to help children like her son that Mister Rogers was coming to California and that after he visited the gorilla named Koko, he was coming to meet her son.

At first, the boy was made very nervous by the thought that Mister Rogers was visiting him. He was so nervous, in fact, that when Mister Rogers did visit, he got mad at himself and began hating himself and hitting himself, and his mother had to take him to another room and talk to him. Mister Rogers didn't leave, though. He wanted something from the boy, and Mister Rogers never leaves when he wants something from somebody. He just waited patiently, and when the boy came back, Mister Rogers talked to him, and then he made his request. He said, "I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?" On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said, "I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?" And now the boy didn't know how to respond. He was thunderstruck. Thunderstruck means that you can't talk, because something has happened that's as sudden and as miraculous and maybe as scary as a bolt of lightning, and all you can do is listen to the rumble. The boy was thunderstruck because 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 although at first he didn't know if he could do it, he said he would, he said he'd try, and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn't talk about wanting to die anymore, 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."

What an amazing human being who, again and again, demonstrated his ability to look beyond the reality most people saw, and, as Jurod said in the first piece I linked above, find the good in people. Here, finally, is what I selected as my closing prayer tonight. It is from a commencement address Fred Rogers gave at Marquette University in 2001.
A few years ago, I was asked to be part of a White House meeting about children and television. Many broadcasters from all over the country were there. Since I was supposed to be one of the speakers, I was seated beside Mrs. Clinton, who afterward said, "Congratulations," and was whisked away to her next meeting.

But as I was leaving that enormous room, I heard something from one of the military guards, who was all dressed up in white and gold looking like a statue. I heard him whisper, "Thanks, Mr. Rogers." So I went over to him, noticed that his eyes were moist, and I asked him, "Thanks for what?"

"Well, sir," he said, "as I listened to you today, I started to remember my grandfather's brother. I haven't thought about him in years. I was only seven when he died, but just before that, he gave me his favorite fishing rod. I've just been thinking, maybe that's why I like fishing so much and why I like to show the kids in my neighborhood all about it."

Well, as far as I'm concerned, the major reason for my going to Washington that day was that military guard and nourishing the memory of his great uncle.

What marvelous mysteries we're privileged to be part of! Why would that young man be assigned to guard that particular room on that particular day? It's slender threads like that that weave this complex fabric of our life together.

I wonder if you've heard what happened at the Seattle Special Olympics a few years ago? For the 100-yard dash there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line; and, at the sound of the gun they took off - but one little boy stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, saw the boy and ran back to him - every one of them ran back to him.

One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy and said, "This will make it better." The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time.

And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. People who were there are still telling the story with obvious delight.

And you know why, because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is much more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then. There's a part of all of us that longs to know that even what's weakest about us can ultimately count for something good.