How many of you grew up watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood – or showed it to your children as they were growing up? I was born at just the right time – I was 4 when it first appeared on our local PBS station – the perfect age for this unique show. And paired with Sesame Street, which came out at the same time, this little white girl from a rural community in Rensselaer County was suddenly learning about towns and cities, counting and spelling (in both English and Spanish), what other people looked like, what it meant to use our imagination, and what it meant to be a neighbor. And I recently thought about how important it was to hear these messages in the wake of the King assassination, in the midst of the Vietnam war, in the restlessness of the country – something I as a small child knew nothing about except that things seemed wrong and some of my schoolmates’ dads never came home.
Fred Rogers, this gentle Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh, was never a parish minister, but rather went into the community – the community of television, and children – an alien land, to be sure. The grounding of his faith and his local congregation allowed him to flourish as he brought these incredible messages of care, support, openness, intimate justice, and kindness to not just children but their parents.
I don’t think it’s a mistake that Mr. Rogers is resonating so deeply right now. The lessons he was teaching us – and is still teaching us – help ground us when we feel utterly ungrounded. They are there for the taking – these things that Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum also reminded us that we learned in Kindergarten – how to be kind and how to share, and how to forgive, and how to take care of ourselves and each other.
And we need these reminders. Too often, I fear, we get so caught up in the hustle and bustle – and lately, existential anxiety – that we forget to pay attention to others. We forget that while we are the lead characters in our own stories, we are but bit players and maybe just background extras in the stories of other people. So many times, it seems, other people try to upstage us with their ideas, opinions, and criticisms – or worse, we upstage them as if we’re more important or valued. It’s no wonder Mr. Rogers Neighborhood continues to be so important. The ministry of Rogers focused on teaching children how to live out the assertion that we have inherent worth and dignity just by being human, and how we are all worth care and consideration. Mr. Rogers’s ministry continues to teach us that if we have any hope of changing the world, it starts with us.
It matters how we treat each other, how we support each other, how we hold one another in care, how we hold one another to our responsibilities to others and the earth. Our Universalism teaches us that hell is on earth and we are here to love the Hell out of the World – we do that by how we love, how we act, how we live. If we have any chance of building this world from love, or we must ground ourselves as people of compassion, openness, and a willingness to be genuinely kind.
This month we’ll be exploring the topic of compassion, which I think begins with a focus on kindness. In the TV show The Good Place, we hear over and over the question “what do we owe to each other?” and the answer to me is kindness. Grace. Compassion.
We can all be kind. We are called to be kind. And in our individual acts of kindness, we make a difference. As Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale wrote, “I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
Kindness is how we live into covenant with one another. Kindness is how we change the world, one compassionate act at a time.