This week, as we all began learning of and responding to the bombings in Boston, a meme of Mr. Rogers went viral on Facebook. Like a lot of us, I grew up visiting him almost every day in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, his long-running children's TV show. So it was a little strange to see him suddenly in the middle of my NewsFeed, over and over, smiling his smile and wearing one of his sweaters. But as soon as I saw what he was saying, I understood why:
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."
Classic Mr. Rogers: simple, kind and, if you're a fool or just not paying attention, you might dismiss those words as sentimental without realizing just how powerful and important what he's saying really is.
It also made me remember that Mr. Rogers wasn't just part of my childhood; when I was ordained in October 2000, Mr. Rogers was there. Almost literally; while he didn't attend the afternoon ordination service, he was at my church that Sunday morning because of a long friendship with my pastor. After the service, I went to meet him. When he learned I was being ordained that day, he took my hand again, and looked me in the eye, and said, "What you're about to do is important, and it is hard. Do the best you can, and it will be more than enough. God will make sure of that." Classic Mr. Rogers: simple, compassionate and, if you're a fool, you might dismiss it as sentimental. Less than a year later, I realized how powerful and important those words were: It was Sept. 11, 2001, and I was a pastor serving a church in Manhattan, trying to figure out how we should respond to the overwhelming need into which our city and neighborhood had suddenly been plunged.
What you might not know about Mr. Rogers is that he was a Presbyterian minister himself, and he viewed his show and what it was doing as his ministry in the world. Part of why you may not have known is because Mr. Rogers didn't conduct his public ministry like a lot of religious leaders we see on TV. He wasn't interested in getting people to claim a certain religious formula or accept a particular set of doctrines, and certainly not in trying to make decisions about who God should and should not love. Like Jesus, he was much more concerned with how we treat our neighbors.
When Jesus was asked what one has to do to have eternal life, he answered, "Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself." Importantly, Jesus doesn't offer a choice between the two; you can't love God wholeheartedly without doing the same for your neighbor. When someone asks, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus responds with one of his most famous stories: the Good Samaritan, in which a man is mugged on the road and left for dead. Several of his own people pass him by on that dangerous road, but a Samaritan man, who would normally be considered an enemy, actually stops, tends to his wounds, takes him to safety at an inn, and tells the innkeeper that he'll pay whatever expenses the man incurs until he's well. When he finished, Jesus asked the questioner one of his own: "Which of the people on the road was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?" Sheepishly, the questioner responds, "the one who showed mercy." And Jesus responds, "Go and do likewise." It's not about figuring out who your neighbor is; it's about figuring out how you can be a neighbor to others.
Every week at the start of his show, Mr. Rogers would sing, "It's a wonderful day for a neighbor ... won't you be my neighbor?" It sounds simple and kind; and it is, but it is also powerful and important. He was really talking about being a neighbor the same way Jesus did. He didn't say, "It's a beautiful day, let's be nice to each other." It is the ugliest days that are the most wonderful ones for being neighbors. That's why one of the other popular memes was "13 Examples of People Being Awesome After the Attack on the Boston Marathon." And being a neighbor isn't about being nice. The way Mr. Rogers and Jesus mean it, it's about going out of our way to help our neighbor when they need help, loving your neighbor even more than yourself sometimes as you put yourself at risk for their well-being. Perhaps the most inspiring part of what happened in Boston was the people nearby who ran toward the explosions rather than away from them to help the injured. They didn't know those people or live anywhere near them. But they were neighbors to them in breathtakingly compassionate and sacrificial ways. Only a great fool would call that sentimental.
I say all this because it was not only helpers who ran into the chaos after the attacks; it was not only Mr. Rogers who appeared in social media. The haters came, too: Erik Rush tweeting about Muslims, "They're evil; let's kill them all," or Pamela Geller spewing her usual bile from her blog. And, of course, Westboro "Baptist" "Church" appeared, commanding massive media coverage despite their tiny number just because of the sheer size and audacity of their hate. They celebrated the bombings as God's judgment on America for tolerating homosexuality and promised to picket at victims' funerals.
It can be tempting to look for the haters; they are ugly and despicable and maddening and even scary, and we are fascinated by that as well as repelled. But that's a choice we don't have to make. We can look for the helpers instead. We can insist that Mr. Rogers is the voice we want to hear; we can be adamant that he is the kind of religious leader to whom we will listen; we can demand that the heroic first responders and ordinary people literally tearing down barricades in order to help their neighbors in need are who we want to see. And we ourselves can go and do likewise: simply, kindly, powerfully, the best ways we can. And we can trust that will be more than enough; God will make sure of that.
Follow Rev. J.C. Austin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jcaustinnyc