The 2018 documentary film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” chronicles Fred Rogers’s life and significant contribution as a public television pioneer in children’s programming. I am among many who grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” At the heart of his message was a sense of everyone’s worth. He ended every show with “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.”
This concept of unconditional love and belonging clearly struck a chord with countless children over the show’s 30-plus years. And Mr. Rogers didn’t shy away from applying this message to some of the more charged social and political issues of the times. On one segment he invited Mr. Clemmons, a policeman on the show played by a black actor, to join him in rolling up his pants and cooling his feet off in a kiddie pool on a hot day. Afterward, Rogers dried his friend’s feet, making a bold statement against the racial divides of his day.
For me, this segment of the show brings to mind the beautiful biblical image of Jesus humbly washing his disciples’ feet, openly demonstrating his instruction to do to others as we would want them to do to us. This message of equality and love for all is needed more than ever today as society grapples with those same issues.
When I first started my career as a teacher in Texas, I taught fourth-grade immigrant students from Spanish-speaking countries. It wasn’t long before I picked up on prejudicial comments that other teachers, parents, and students made about these children. Some felt they shouldn’t be living in the United States, let alone benefiting from the US educational system. And some of the mainstream students felt my students weren’t smart enough and were holding them back in their education by sharing the same classroom.
I realized I could make the biggest difference in my students’ lives by helping them all to see that skin color, language, and social and cultural backgrounds could never determine a person’s right to love and be loved equally. I prayed for ways to demonstrate this in my classroom, and I was inspired in my approach when I read the following statement by Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy: “The pure and uplifting thoughts of the teacher, constantly imparted to pupils, will reach higher than the heavens of astronomy; while the debased and unscrupulous mind, though adorned with gems of scholarly attainment, will degrade the characters it should inform and elevate” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 235).
I knew that beyond my teaching credentials, it was a devotion to seeing goodness and purity expressed in my students that would further them the most. So I worked diligently to see them this way, encouraged by ideas I had learned in my study of Christian Science. For instance, I considered that hatred and separatism are not natural to any of us as children of the one God, our loving and caring divine Parent. God doesn’t see differences based on race or any other label. He knows us as His spiritual offspring – unique and valued. This divine Parent could never divide us or cause us to think or act in hurtful ways.
When we turn away from thoughts that we are either better or less than our neighbor, and instead nurture thoughts of kindness and reciprocity, we are practicing Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are letting the unifying love of God lead us forward.
I saw the healing effects of this approach in that classroom. I’ll always be grateful for the beautiful friendships that formed when I asked students to partner together on projects in which they learned to work together cross-culturally, and when I taught my students a song about global equality that they sang in English to supportive applause from the entire school.
Whether the differences we see in our neighbor relate to religion, politics, nationality, or something else, we can bridge over these divides with a genuine desire to love each person just the way they are – as God’s capable, worthy, spiritual creation. In this way we demonstrate the spirit of these words of the Apostle Paul: “There is no Jew or Gentile. There is no slave or free person. There is no male or female. That’s because you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, New International Reader’s Version).