Luke 10:29 . . . [H]e asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In the last few years, there’s been renewed interest in children’s entertainer Fred Rogers, in part due to films like the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and in part because of how profoundly apt the wisdom of “Mr. Rogers” seems in a divided, divisive, and painful time in our nation’s history.
As someone who didn’t grow up watching Fred Roger’s popular show “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” it’s been that idea—Fred Rogers as a model of genuine kindness in a time when it feels harder than ever to “love” (or even like) our neighbors—that’s drawn me to learn more about his life and legacy. Understanding what it means to “be a neighbor,” to love others well, has never felt more urgent. Study after study reveals a country divided not just by differing political ideologies and experiences, but by deep mistrust and even disdain for those on the “other side.” It seems that every day the news brings a new example of mistrust or hate.
But, for me at least, what it means to be a good neighbor has also never felt more overwhelming and perplexing—where does one even begin to chip at the deep-rooted realities that have driven so many of us into isolation from others? Even if we accepted our own responsibility for the divisions and resolved to live differently, we are a nation divided not only ideologically but geographically. So much so that even apart from the isolation caused by individualism (“Why bother getting to know someone we likely have little in common with?”), it can be difficult to find people different from ourselves who are interested in building a relationship. And what of those who have been wounded by others through prejudged assumptions about them and their experiences? Should they have to carry the burden of reconciling with people who have, knowingly or unknowingly, contributed to their pain, yet are unwilling to take responsibility?
These are some of the questions I’ve been struggling to work through for years now, occasionally making fumbling attempts connect and build relationships with those outside my homogenous circles, usually retreating fairly quickly back into more familiar, comfortable ways. And those were some of the questions I brought with me as I watched It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a 2019 film inspired by the relationship between Fred Rogers and Atlantic journalist Tom Junod.
In all honesty, I came into the theatre with some real dread, fearing that I knew what was coming: an inspiring story about extraordinary grace and kindness that broke down relational barriers; the kind of story that inspires and challenges you to change your life, to be a part of the solution . . . Until you realize it’s impossible, that you’ll only get discouraged and give up. Again.
My most committed attempt to work at being a better “neighbor,” at consciously resisting my ingrained individualism and isolation from people different from myself in race, class, and beliefs was during the several years I lived in an “intentional community” with three other women in a house located in Baxter, a racially diverse and predominantly low-income community in Grand Rapids. The house was owned by Sherman Street CRC, a predominantly white church; most of its members walked or drove from outside the Baxter neighborhood to attend each Sunday—from the much higher income neighborhoods only blocks away. During the period of white flight when the Baxter community had become more diverse—partly due to redlining becoming illegal—the church had made a conscious decision to remain committed to the physical neighborhood it was a part of. The “McCarty House” I joined was a part of that commitment, aimed at being a way the church connected with, served, and built community with its physical neighbors.
But it never quite felt like that to those of us who lived there. We got to know the friendly kids who played in the church parking lot next door to the House, but made little headway in building relationships with adults in the neighborhood. The volunteer work we did as part of our housing agreement felt forced, as if we were simply ticking a requirement box. And we struggled with a constant sense of guilt and failure, suspecting that the church expected us, a group of young white single women who were newcomers to the neighborhood, to somehow appease their own sense of guilt—perhaps for their physical isolation from the immediate neighborhood, perhaps even for a nagging sense that maybe they were privileged. We sensed a faint self-congratulatory tone in the church’s view of the House and its mission, and became more and more convinced it was a misguided mission, guided, like so many other well-intentioned missions, by a subtle savior complex: the assumption that it was their role to “serve” their “underprivileged” neighbors, when in reality, it might be the church most in need of the gifts and wisdom of the community. After a few years, each of us had burned out on the experiment and found other housing.
Since that experience, I haven’t tried again in any focused way to build relationships with new “neighbors,” physical or otherwise. I’ve realized I’d rather be honest about my limitations than start thinking of my neighbors as projects or unachieved “to-do’s,” and I’d rather be honest about my limited capacity to bring the kind of change I long to see in the world than live each day carrying an impossible load of guilt, not to mention the unsustainable delusions of grandeur that accompanies most folks’ self-improvement projects.
But It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood didn’t have the effect I feared—that mix of obligation and resignation. Instead, watching it felt more like a profound experience of acceptance and grace, much like the friendship the film depicts between Fred Rogers and world-weary journalist Lloyd Vogel. Watching Lloyd on-screen feels a bit like seeing myself in a mirror, his haunted eyes reflecting back my own weary cynicism with a world I can’t trust, along with an equally heavy burden of our my self-rejection. But what Lloyd receives from Fred isn’t a set of “shoulds”; instead he receives complete acceptance and appreciation of who he is and what he has to offer. A bit paradoxically, Fred reawakened Lloyd’s awareness of his own woundedness and need to face his past honestly through Fred’s deep appreciation of all that Lloyd had to offer. Through his unconditional acceptance of all that those before him had to offer, (beautifully lyricized in the song “I Like You as You Are”), Fred Rogers showed that our wounds are important, not because they make us uniquely broken or “tragic,” but because we are important, each part of us; that is, all of us. Our wounds are simply one important aspect of what reveals how we are human, unique and precious, like every human being.
As I reflected on the film that evening, the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) came to mind, and I started realizing that, by default, I tend to hear this parable from the same distorted lens of assumed privilege and responsibility that had burdened us in our experience living at the McCarty house. But what if what I needed to hear most from the parable wasn’t a tone of, “Be a better neighbor,” but the gentler invitation of “won’t you be my neighbor”? What if the point of the parable isn’t simply to expand an already burdensome task of “being a neighbor” to anyone and everyone who might be in need of us, but to completely change our paradigm about what it means to be human in relationship with others?
There’s a lot in the parable that suggests Jesus is up to something like this when an “expert in the law” asked him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 25) and “who is my neighbor?” (v. 29). This expert in Jewish law wanted to know where to draw the line of his obligation as a faithful Jew. But through his parable, Jesus never answers the question, perhaps because it’s wrong question. Much like those of us today weighed down by what is sometimes called a “messiah complex,” who want to know what we can possibly do in the face of a world of need, the questioner implicitly put himself at the center of his world, in the position of the person of privilege and resources. The only question was who would be the lucky beneficiary of those gifts: who was his neighbor? Who gets his help?
But Jesus’s parable suggested the law expert was just a bit off; a better question might have been, Who is a neighbor to you? Who are you in need of? The story made it impossible for the law expert to put himself in the role of the “hero,” since two of the Jewish characters were proud and hard-hearted. The only other Jewish character in the story was the person in need, helpless and bleeding in the ditch. Instead of offering the law expert advice on discerning the boundaries of his resources, on when and how to help those he least wanted to help—like Samaritans, generally disdained by their more “pure,” “orthodox” Jewish neighbors—Jesus’s parable may have suggested he was the one in need of a Samaritan. Those he might be in need of, those who can give to him in his time of need, might be those he least suspects, those he least wants to connect with.
Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes us down a similar journey. With the cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel, we’re redirected from a desire to analyze and control our relationships with others to opening our eyes to our own stories and the deepest needs of our hearts. Like our need to be seen and accepted for who we really are, and for the wounds in our hearts to be cared for with compassion. But not because there are two kinds of people in the world—those broken and those whole—and we’re either the broken ones in need of fixing or the “fixers.” In one scene, Lloyd hesitantly tells Fred, “You like people like me . . . . Broken people,” and Fred quietly responds, “I don’t think you’re broken.” That scene seems to capture the kind of grace that drew others to Fred; the capacity to see and accept a person fully, exactly as they are.
Much like the parable of the Good Samaritan, maybe the legacy and example of Fred Rogers can offer us an invitation to stop putting our sense of obligation at the center of our world. Maybe we don’t need to put ourselves on a higher plane than the neighbors in need of our “help.” Maybe what we need most is to learn to see ourselves as equal members of one humanity, in which each person is unspeakably precious, with much to offer. Instead of asking “Who is my neighbor?” maybe we can learn to ask, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”—beginning a journey of learning to joyfully celebrate others as well as ourselves in our place in the human family.
Monica La Rose