By Joe McKeever
“I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you….” (from Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Opening theme)
“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). This verse is quoted in the New Testament in Matthew 5:43 and 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8.
Mr. Fred Rogers, who left us in 2003, is back in the news these days. Books and articles, television specials and a couple of movies remind us just how special this good man was.
Anyone who reads Mr. Rogers’ words or dwells on his life for even a few minutes comes away thinking more about being a good neighbor.
My wife and I saw the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Thursday of this week. There were perhaps 25 or 30 others in the theater, most of them seniors. This was not the Tom Hanks movie on Mr. Rogers which I had expected, but is more of a documentary or biopic, I think they call it. The Hanks movie will be out soon, we’re told, and is not so much a biography as a story about Rogers’ interview with a magazine writer.
A couple of observations about Mr. Rogers from the movie we just saw. One, the man truly was almost too good to be true. As a result, during his lifetime some had tried to find dirt on him and made accusations against him. All to no avail. He was “all that,” as the saying goes. One of his sons said, “I was raised by the second Christ,” with a smile.
Fred Rogers was a Christian. He held a degree from a seminary. He began every day by reading his Bible and praying for a list of people. Then, he drove to the Y and swam a mile. He kept his weight at 143 for most of his adult life. He died far too young.
Two, this world doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with someone who is pure love and finds such fascinating ways to express it. So, during his lifetime some blamed Fred Rogers for the generation of self-centered young adults. After all, at the end of his programs, hadn’t he told the children for many years how special they were and “I like you just the way you are.” And doesn’t that turn everyone into narcissists?
At Rogers’ memorial service, a negative unhappy bunch stood across the street holding signs saying he was going to hell and “God hates America.” So, in the manner of his mentor one of Rogers’ colleagues walked across the street and engaged them in conversation. “Fred would have done that,” he said.
Anyone who works with children or has a child in their lives should see the movie. It’s a 90 minute masters’ level seminar on how to talk with a child. And don’t we all need that?
When the movie ended, Bertha and I sat there for a few minutes to let others leave. When we got up to leave, a young man and a woman either his mother or grandmother were negotiating their way down the steps. He was walking behind her. As we entered the lobby together, we had a casual chat with them and I did something.
I said, “Sir, could I do a Mister Rogers and tell you something?” He smiled and said, “Sure.” I said, “When you’re coming down stairs with a woman, walk in front of her. When you’re going up the stairs, go behind her.” He smiled and said, “That’s good. I never thought of that.”
Being a neighbor…
We’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
Bertha’s oldest granddaughter was stuck at the Paris airport last week, trying to get home. Allison traveled there on a pass given by a friend who works for an airline. She’s done this before and been able to see a good part of the world. But no one had planned for this.
Eventually, in the airport Allison made friends with a couple from Los Angeles. She and they traveled the chunnel to London, where they took her to dinner. Then, with their assistance she caught a plane to Houston, and from there to her home in Orlando.
Friends new and old–where would we be without them?
While people were being good neighbors to our granddaughter, Bertha herself was doing neighborly things here at home. This wife of mine is always baking banana bread and taking to people who live around us. This week that included someone new who was just moving in. And then this week, Bertha invited a group of international students into our home for dinner. Another of our granddaughters–Allison’s sister Megan–has been helping four Peruvians and three Brazilians with their English and had brought them by our house. So, Bertha and I invited them to come to dinner one night. She cooked all day Wednesday and I cleaned house. That night, they came, we talked nonstop for two hours, and I sketched them all–even drawing family members back home in South America from their phones!
It’s great being neighbors, isn’t it?
Have I told you how “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” came to be special to me?
It was over 25 years ago and I was pastoring in metro New Orleans. On a Monday, I’d taken my Bible and some books and driven a hundred miles north for a two-day study retreat. At his invitation, I’d be staying in Jerry Clower’s camphouse between McComb and Liberty, Mississippi. At noon, as I arrived at McComb, I decided to stop for lunch. The restaurant was informal, cafeteria-style, where you get your food and then sit at a table with other people.
The two men who sat down across from me were 60-ish, stocky, and wore faded overalls. Back at home in Alabama, I’d have told you they were probably moonshiners. We greeted one another and I opened my Bible to read. But the man across from me wanted to talk.
“What do you think the legislature’s gonna do this week?” I said I was from New Orleans and had no idea what they were doing in Jackson.
“New Orleans, huh? Who y’all gonna elect as governor next time?” I replied that it was too early to tell, as they were still deciding who would run.
“What do you think about this David Duke fellow’s chances?” David Duke was a former grand whatever for the KKK and was once again running for elective office.
I said, “Not much.” He said, “Why’s that?”
I said, “David Duke believes things most of our people don’t.”
He said, “For instance?” I said, “David Duke believes in the superiority of the white race. And most of our people don’t hold to that.”
He said, “Well, that’s a little hard to argue with.” I closed my Bible, looked at him, and said, “I’ll argue with it.”
But he was ready. He’d had this argument before.
He either didn’t know or care that people at other tables were listening in on this conversation. People black and white.
“Then tell me why it is,” he said, “that whenever the whites and blacks have lived alongside each other, the blacks have ended up being the slaves of the whites. Tell me that.”
I’d heard that before. It doesn’t take Mr. Snopes to know it’s a fallacy. I said, “Sir, you’ll be glad to know that didn’t happen often. But if it happened even once, it would indicate the inferiority of the white race, wouldn’t it? that they insist on making slaves of their neighbors.”
The man said, “That brings up the matter of slavery, doesn’t it?” I said, “It does?”
He said, “I see you have a Bible there.” Yes sir. “You know there’s not one word in the Bible that says slavery is wrong, don’t you?”
I said, “Are you serious?” He said, “Give me one verse in the Bible that says slavery is wrong.”
Now, many years earlier as a history major at Birmingham-Southern College, I did a term paper on some pre-Civil War correspondence between a northern preacher and a southern preacher over whether the Bible approves of slavery. I knew there was no verse in Scripture saying “Thou shalt own no slaves.” But I also knew that slavery is the opposite of everything taught in the Holy Bible.
My mind is going through all of this, rapidly trying to decide what teaching in Scripture would be best to answer this man’s challenge. But before I could answer him, his neighbor turned to him with the perfect reply.
Now, I would have thought they were two peas in a pod, that what one spoke the other believed. So I was not prepared for this. When the first man said, “Give me one verse in all the Bible that says slavery is wrong,” the second fellow paused to give me time to answer. When he saw I was hesitating, he turned to his friend and said, “How about Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
I said, “Great answer! Perfect answer! I love that answer!”
The fellow never conceded the point but tried to go on with some other spurious argument. I opened my Bible and said, “Sir, you need to excuse me. I have some reading I have to get done.” But I never read another word. I sat there for the rest of the meal, reliving that conversation, and relishing the comeback the second guy gave the first.
A few days later back at home, the sheriff of Jefferson Parish where I lived, was in the news pushing for a huge gambling casino. I wrote him a letter, “Dear Sheriff Harry Lee, Instead of promoting an ungodly casino which will destroy so many lives, how about giving us some moral leadership.” He wrote me back.
Dear Reverend. I am offended you would suggest there is anything immoral about a casino. Give me one verse in all the Bible that says gambling is wrong.
I wrote back: “Dear Sheriff: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Such love, we read in Romans 13:10 and Galatians 5:14, is the fulfillment of the law. James 2:18 calls it “the royal law.”
The great Apostle Paul said, “If there is any other commandment, all are summed up in this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9).
It’s the Jesus thing to do. Right, neighbor?
Joe McKeever is a retired pastor and a past director of the New Orleans Baptist Association. This editorial first appeared on his blog.