Monday, October 1, 2018

City Notes '18 | Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Neighbor: Mister Rogers and the Global Refugee Crisis


Jesus' definition of "neighbor" is similar to my earliest notions of this word, which were shaped by a thin, soft-spoken man named Fred—known to the world as Mister Rogers.


This post finishes some notes from one of the top books I have read in 2018: 
Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them by Jonathan Merritt. Below are the previous posts of notes from Learning to Speak God from Scratch:

City Notes '18 | Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Sin: A Mountain of Metaphors 
City Notes '18 | Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Grace: Umbrellas and Unmerited Favor

Sin, grace, neighbor. These words have been used, abused, and accrued by many throughout the centuries in relation to religious and irreligious discussions. 

Neighbor is not only a word we need to understand, it's a person we need to become with regular intentionality, care, and action.

In Learning to Speak God from Scratch, author Jonathan Merritt helps unpack the word, "neighbor," with power, consideration, and application. 

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 16: Neighbor: Mister Rogers and the Global Refugee Crisis from Learning to Speak God from Scratch:

Are Syrian Refugees Our Neighbors?

When ISIS militants in Syria beheaded American war correspondent James Foley, I was only a few miles from the country's border, interviewing refugees in a Lebanese tent settlement. The news that ISIS forces were targeting journalists in the region struck me like an anvil, but I did not leave. I could not leave. The Syrian refugee children's stories deserved to be told.

I recorded stories for nearly two weeks before returning home, where Americans were debating whether to allow Syrian refugees into our country. Arriving back to my apartment, I phoned a friend—a Christian of the southern conservative variety—to process the horrors I'd witnessed. He listened patiently to my stories and then responded, "That's sad, but we can't be responsible for those children. We've got our hands full here in America with our own problems."

This kind of "America First" thinking would not fully metastasize in American public life until the political ascension of Donald Trump two years later. But the narrow worldview confounded me even then. "But what if those children were your neighbors?" I asked him. "In that case, I guess I would have to do something to help them," he said.

What Does Neighbor Mean to Jesus?

The English word neighbor derives from the words nigh or "near" and gebur or "dweller." In the literal sense of the English word, a neighbor is someone who lives near you. If we are to love our neighbors, as Jesus instructed, as the second greatest commandment, we must care for those who live in close proximity to us. But in a world of hustle, bustle, and business, this simple task can seem formidable. In many American communities, it's easy to avoid knowing or being known by one's neighbors. As a result, we have forgotten how to love and prioritize the people who live alongside us.

Jesus' understanding of neighbor, however, includes but also stretches beyond the fence posts of the English definition. In one of the Bible's most famous passages, a legal expert asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells the story about a Samaritan who helps a Jewish traveler who has been robbed and left for dead. The Samaritan in Jesus' story didn't dwell near the victim. Samaritans lived and worshipped in a segregated community, so he almost certainly didn't reside in close proximity to the bedraggled man. He just happened to be on the same road that day. So Jesus' definition of neighbor seems to be "anyone who is in need." They can live across the street or ten thousand miles away in a refugee camp.

This isn't the way many think of neighbor when they speak it today. In recent years, an isolationist ideal has been rising, narrowing the application of neighbor only to someone you can put eyes on personally. But Jesus' definition is similar to my earliest notions of this word, which were shaped by a thin, soft-spoken man named Fred—known to the world as Mister Rogers.

How did Mister Rogers Help Restore the Meaning of Neighbor?

Fred Rogers got into television because he "hated" the medium. During his senior year in seminary, he encountered television for the first time, and what he witness repulsed him. "I got into television," he once recounted, "because I saw people throwing pies at each other's faces, and that to me was demeaning behavior. And if there's anything that bothers me, it's one person demeaning another. That really makes me mad!"

In the wake of World War II, when many men (many of them veterans), were having trouble expressing their feelings, Fred Rogers recognized that the children of these quiet giants might also have difficulty expressing their emotions. He worried that the type of programming that was becoming normative would spawn a generation of emotionally bankrupt Americans. Faced with the decision to either sour on television itself or work to better the medium, he chose the latter and began pursuing a career in broadcasting. Fourteen years later, he created one of the most beloved American television shows of all time. Each day he stood before a camera and spoke words that, like torches, illuminated his young viewers' minds and shaped entire generations of American children.

Fred Rogers knew the power his words contained, which is why he reviewed his shows and scripts with Dr. Margaret McFarland, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. Before taping an episode, a team of child psychology experts reviewed the script's effects on children's cognitive and emotional development. He talked to children like adults, teaching kids to face the world's hard realities and not shrink back. Emotions should be embraced, not buried. "The world is not always a kind place," he once said. "That's something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it's something they really need our help to understand." Rogers imagined himself as something of a surrogate parent, which is why other children never appeared on the show. He didn't want to create a sentiment of sibling rivalry. When Rogers encountered a child who watched faithfully, he might say, "Why, I think you've grown!" And the child often proudly responded, "I thought you'd notice that, Mr. Rogers." Such responses proved that he had been successful in providing what he called "a neighborhood expression of care for children." 

Rogers's approach to his craft and calling was the result of his Christian faith. Rogers was an ordained minister, and since he left seminary to pursue television, the local branch of his denomination gave him a special commission as an evangelist to children. This unlikely TV evangelist seemed to be always aware that his vocational calling was originated from on high. He believed "the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground," though he trusted God to do the heavy lifting. The wall of his office featured a framed picture of the Greek word for "grace," a constant reminder of his belief that he could use television "for the broadcasting of grace through the land." And before entering that office each day, Rogers would pray, "Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours."

In 1998, Esquire reported the story of a young viewer of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood with an acute case of autism. The child had never spoken a word until one day he uttered, "X the Owl," the name of one of Mister Rogers's most popular puppets. And the boy had never looked his father in the eye either, until the day his dad said, "Let's go the Neighborhood of Make-Believe." After this, the boy began speaking and reading, which inspired the father to visit Fred Rogers personally to thank him for changing his son's life. Later in Rogers's life, he recounted the story of a child who was being abused by his biological parents, who reportedly "wouldn't even give him a winter blanket and wouldn't give him a bed to sleep in." Through encountering Mister Roger's Neighborhood, the child began to hope that there were kind people in the world and became convinced that he too should be treated with respect. The child called an abuse hotline and was rescued. Even more stunning, the hotline operator who answered the phone adopted the boy.

No matter which topic an episode featured, there was one word Rogers always spoke: neighbor. For him, a neighbor was not just the person who lived next door to you that you waved to when retrieving your mail. It may not be someone who looked like you or dressed like you or frequented the same coffee shop. It was anyone whose path you crossed, especially if that person was in need. Which is to say, Mister Rogers's definition was almost identical to Jesus'. In 1999, when Fred Rogers was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, he reflected on his career: 

... Life isn't cheap. It's the greatest mystery of any millennium, and television needs to do all it can to broadcast that—to show and tell what the good in life is all about. But how do we make goodness attractive? By doing all we can to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own. By treating our "neighbor" at least as well as we treat ourselves and that to inform everything that we produce. ...  

Fred Rogers's entire existence seemed wrapped up with that legal expert's question to Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?" He did all he could to care for his neighbors—children of every color and creed, living across America and around the world—and he loved them well. "You've made this day a special day by just your being you," he'd famously sign off. "There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are." 

Rogers was right. There is no person in this world like you. You have been created and called to love those in need, whether nestled in the suburban cocoon across the street or languishing in a refugee camp a million miles away. As neighbors, we are bound to each other by humanity, not just proximity. Some in our culture believe we become stronger by being more inward-focused. That building walls and closing borders is better than the biblical mandate to invite all to the table. When it comes to neighborliness, we are connected by need, not nearness. If we began to understand neighbor in this way, it would be a beautiful day in our global neighborhood.

P.S. If you liked these excerpts about Sin, Grace, and Neighbor, then I encourage you to purchase Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them by Jonathan Merritt. The two most profound chapters in the book are:

+ Chapter 10: Pain: Chronic Conditions and Other Metaphors 
+ Chapter 11: Disappointment: Dopamine Roller Coasters and Palm Branches 

Here are links to previous City Notes books:


2017 | Gospel Fluency; Moving Towards Emmaus; Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalFaith Without Illusions

2018 | The Eternal CurrentLearning to Speak God from Scratch Part 1; Learning to Speak God from Scratch Part 2

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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