From 1968 until 2001, nearly every child in America had become captivated by one man’s seemingly mundane routine. The tall, lanky man would enter his house through his front door with slicked-back, jet-black hair, open his closet door, take off his jacket and put it on a hanger, grab a cardigan off another hanger and put it on, move to a bench where he took off his shoes, and put on some house slippers – all the while singing a catchy, melodic tune: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine?”
During those 33 years, Fred Rogers recorded a stunning 895 episodes of his beloved PBS program, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” – one of the most enigmatic programs to ever have come across the broadcast waves of television. Much of the success of the program can be directly attributed to the gentility and authenticity of Fred Rogers himself. The popularity of the show, however, goes deeper than Mr. Rogers’ individual persona.
At the beginning of each episode the audience was offered an invitation: “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you … won’t you please be my neighbor?” He was inviting us into his living room to tell us his stories and make us feel a part of his family. There was something about that invitation that children found compelling for the decades of the show’s success. Mr. Rogers exuded an atmosphere of trust and safety. Who wouldn’t want to be Fred Rogers’ neighbor?
The ironic thing about the popularity of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is that, while we may have been drawn to being Mr. Rogers’ neighbor, few of us seemed to have the same desire to be a neighbor to the real flesh-and-blood people who live next door to us and across the street. It has become second nature for people to click their garage door opener from inside their car, drive into their garage, close their door and literally have no interaction with people whose bedrooms are separated from their own by mere feet.
I recently read a book about a community of churches who were looking to address some of the social ills in their city. Church leaders met with the mayor of their city and asked what they could do as religious leaders to help tackle some of the city’s more pressing social problems. The mayor’s response caught them all off guard. He told them that the biggest thing people could do to change their city was to get to know their neighbors.
Neighborhood relationships are the foundation of a strong community. The better we know our neighbors, the stronger our communities will be. There are a bevy of reasons that keep us from knowing our neighbors: longer commutes to and from work that chip into our free time; modern-day technologies and conveniences that tend to keep us indoors; insecurity of meeting new people and the desire to want to keep our families safe; and a lack of energy required to establish and nurture new relationships. There are plenty of reasons we tell ourselves as to why we don’t have time to meet the neighbors.
Yet Mr. Rogers’ invitation still beckons. Everyone wants to know someone is looking out for them and knows their name. Unfamiliarity has a tendency to breed an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. We are jaded by horrific stories we see in the news and convince ourselves that the best thing for our family to do is to isolate ourselves from our communities and build up our own personal walls.
Jesus once said that one of the greatest commands is to love your neighbor as yourselves. Somewhere along the line, people stopped knowing their neighbors. The first step in loving our neighbors is to actually getting to know them. Then we can focus on loving them.
Adam Metz is originally from Defiance, Ohio, and has served as the minister of the Alum Creek Church of Christ in Lewis Center for 12 years.