Bending the Split

Mister Rogers and the Work of Restoration.

The congregation I pastor is taking steps to become a “Restorative Congregation.” Based on principles of the restorative justice movement that emerged in the late 1970s, restorative congregations are places where every person has God-given worth, where no one is disposable, and where conflict and harm are most effectively addressed by attending to the needs of everyone affected. 

By God’s grace, our church is experiencing a culture shift in the ways we make decisions, engage difficult conversations, and respond to conflict. This shift is slow and difficult. And so, as a leader in my congregation, I look for helpers – for organizations and individuals who “get” restoration and who teach us how to be restorative. 

Fred Rogers was and is just such a teacher for me. I watched his program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, on PBS all through the 1980s. I hung an autographed photo of him in my locker in Grade 7. And a few months ago, I sat by myself in a small independent theatre in Kingston, Ontario, to watch the critically acclaimed documentary of his life, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 

Early in the film, Fred Rogers, ordained in the Presbyterian Church as an “evangelist for television” told us the restorative secret of it all: “Love is at the root of everything – all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it.” 

In the very first year of his program (1968-69), Fred addressed the fears of war, the evils of racism, and the grief that came in the wake of the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. When the space shuttle, the Challenger, disintegrated before a watching world in 1986, Fred was there for us. And when, a few months after his final episode had aired in 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Center came down in New York City, we turned to him. Fred, seated at a piano and wearing a suit and tie, said, “No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we are all called to be ‘Tikkun Olam,’ [a Jewish phrase which means] – Repairers of Creation. Thank you for whatever you do, wherever you are, to bring joy and light and hope and faith and pardon and love to your neighbour and to yourself.”

The wounded healer
The more I learn about working through conflict toward restoration in healthy ways, the more I believe that Fred Rogers’ capacity to pastor us through tragedy and conflict came from his capacity to work on his own inner conflict. 

The documentary touched on several shadowy parts of Rogers’ past: the vast stretches of time he spent recovering in bed from childhood illnesses, the lack of freedom he had in his family system to express his anger with words, the pre-adolescent bullying he experienced when other children called him “Fat Freddy.” David Newell, who acted alongside Rogers as the deliveryman, Mr. McFeely, wondered in the documentary, “If there hadn’t been a ‘Fat Freddy,’ would there have been a ‘Mister Rogers?’” And his producer, Margy Whitmer, gently suggested, “Whatever the scars of his life were – he wanted to help heal that wound, maybe?”

One of the greatest gifts Mister Rogers gave us was to let us watch him heal wounds – not just the wounds of external conflict, but his very own wounds. We watched him work out his salvation, his sanctification, his restoration. He did this in his music with songs like, What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?, and lyrics like, “The very same people who are right sometimes are the very same people who are wrong sometimes.” 

Inner worlds
But I think Fred also worked out his own internal restoration in “The Land of Make Believe” – the puppet portion of his program within which he gave voice to most of the characters. We heard the shy and gentle “Daniel Striped Tiger” side of Fred Rogers, the frightened and simple “Henrietta Pussycat” side, and the proud, yet benevolent, “King Friday XIII” side. One of his sons, Jim Rogers, even said that when he was growing up and his dad “would want to say something that wasn’t necessarily ‘Mister Rogers’-like, he would say it in Lady Elaine Fairchilde’s voice. That was our cue that this is the [complex witch-like] alter-ego speaking now, just letting off a little steam.” I believe Fred was working out the conflicts in his inner world through the voices in the Land of Make Believe, and we all had a front row seat.

Toward the end of the film, Rogers’ wife, Joanne, reflected hesitantly on how her husband would respond to the kinds of cultural polarization we are experiencing today, 15 years after his death in 2003. “I can’t think how he would feel about the things that have come out that seem to set us back so far. And I wonder if he wouldn’t simply put down his Tiger and just stay home – forget about even trying.” But then she said, ever so slowly, “I think he would be trying to bend . . . to bend the split.”

Mister Rogers, you were a Bender of the Split; a Lover of God, of people, and of the world. You were Tikkun Olam – a Repairer of Creation. Thank you for what you did to bring joy and light and hope and faith and pardon and love to your neighbour and to yourself.  

  • Heidi is the pastor of Westside Fellowship CRC in Kingston, Ont., and is working toward her Doctor of Ministry degree at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

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