Sorry to all my UUs out there. And my childhood ministers. To the people who have sat with me for hours and listened to me discern or complain or cry. To the folks who have offered prayers in times of need, hugs in time of excitement or fear, or hundreds upon hundreds of Facebook comments offering advice, love, support, or joy.
I’m sorry because the most influential minister in my life was Mister Rogers.
How cliché, right?
I mean, really. This is turning into a “someone I admire” essay for my 4th grade teacher.
But I grew up in a not-so-awesome home. With a mom who was more concerned with drinking and the various men in her life than making sure her kids were being imparted with lessons like “you’re important.” With teachers who had little time to do more than control chaos. With a neighborhood that had more gang violence than picnics. And with grandparents who possibly did the best thing they could have done for me by accident; putting me in front of the TV on the mornings they watched me.
Oh, the other thing you have to know about this is that I hate puppets. HATE THEM.
Got it? Okay then.
I guess I learned some concrete things from Mister Rogers Neighborhood; what break dancing was, how crayons and bike helmets were made, and things of that nature. But mostly I learned compassion. And I learned that some adults wanted me to be curious, to question things I didn’t understand, and that I had things to teach other people. I learned that it was okay to be me, and that it was okay for other people to be who they were. I learned that it was okay to cry if I needed to; in fact, I had an adult man telling me so! I hated the Land of Make-Believe. Would turn off the sound during that part and grab a book to read so I didn’t have to look at the puppets. But I would keep the TV on so I could watch for when he came back, so he could feed his fish and say good bye and sing that he’d see me tomorrow.
Mister Rogers wasn’t a TV show for me. I didn’t really like TV. I liked the escapism that books offered me far more than any TV show. I learned to read at a really young age, mostly teaching myself, and I found a lot more comfort and safety in curing up in a corner with a book than sitting in the open living room with the TV on. I made the exception for Mister Rogers, though.
I think it’s fairly common knowledge now that Mister Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister; he was a deeply religious man that felt his calling was to show love and compassion and equity and kindness to all people, most specifically to children. He was a man of extraordinary heart who often showed that there was worth to every single person. He is quoted saying:
Those of us who are in the world to educate, to care for young children, have a special calling. A calling that has very little to do with a collection of special possessions, but has a lot to do with the worth inside of heads and hearts. In fact, that’s our domain; the heads and hearts of the next generation, the thoughts and feelings of the future.
When I think of who had the most straight-on religious impact on me the answer is probably the minister who brought me back to church, introduced me to UUism. But the minister who had the most theological impact on me? Unquestionably it’s Fred Rogers. The man who taught me to be curious, to never be satisfied with being treated as less than instead of equal to, and the person who sat with me morning after morning and sang to me and talked to me and told me that I was good, and I was worthy, and I was perfect as who I was, not as who others wanted me to be.
I do not want to be a minister because of Rogers. But I want to, in some small way, pay forward what he gave me. I cannot think that I will have the love and courage and wholeness to live each day with the sheer serenity that Rogers showed throughout his life in every interaction, recorded then or years and years later as a remembrance to his holy work. I can, however, hope and strive to use his words, his actions, and his strength of character to encourage me to be my best self.