This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a children’s TV show. Mr. Rogers celebrated neighboring and used his imagination to explore new ways of being connected to one another. Two of my favorite thinkers in Nashville—David Dark and Russ Ramsey—have mentioned Mr. Rogers in the past few weeks. They argue, and I agree, that we can learn a lot from his neighborhood.
Mr. Rogers’ love of imagination is evidenced by the prominent role given to The Neighborhood of Make-Believe on his show. What if we thought of ourselves as people who share a neighborhood, instead of as defenders of a specific point of view? What if we allowed our imaginations to fuel relational creativity, rather than giving in to social patterns worn out by despair? Walter Brueggemann talks about our need to subvert relational norms so we can find ways to live together in abundance and shared flourishing. To imagine a world where your success does not threaten mine. Where we might grow best together. This is the stuff of Make-Believe.
Fred Rogers recalls growing up in a world that frightened him at times. Sound familiar? According to Russ, who recently relayed this story, his mother reassured him that when he felt frightened he need only look for Helpers. She gave her son confidence that no matter how scary the world seemed, there were Helpers everywhere. What a beautiful shift in perspective she provides: Yes, the world is scary, but there are always people willing to help if only we would look. Maybe Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe needs to influence our neighborhoods today.
In mourning the prevalence and power of guns to hurt kids in our country, I have been frightened, and despaired. This month there was a shooting at a school I love in Nashville. The staff is phenomenal, and they did everything they could to keep kids safe. They have grieved and cried and found hope together in the last 10 days, and students feel safe and loved in their school community. In the words of Mr. Rogers’ mom, these students found Helpers, and help they have. And yet, the staff are living in the tension of clinging to hope even as they know school shootings, crushing poverty and violent despair are far too powerful for a school faculty to stop. We adults, who feel exhausted and powerless, we need to find Helpers as well.
I find Helpers in the students of Douglass High School in Parkland, FL. They are challenging the power of the status quo, shaking us awake and helping us believe again that change can come through their #neveragain movement. The Parkland students are effective because we are predisposed to accept them as part of our “us.” They are not jaded activists or entrenched interests; they are not pontificating with no skin in the game. These are innocent kids offering first hand accounts of the ways in which they are victims of a society increasingly based on fear and violent defensiveness. These are brave teenagers who don’t know the “rules”, and so they continually break them. Like Mr. Rogers and Brueggemann, they are imagining a different way of relating to each other. They don’t know that we have somehow agreed that a school shooting should be interpreted in a political context, rather than a human-loss-of-life context. They don’t know that we have somehow agreed that even though the vast majority of Americans want stricter gun laws, we are powerless to change anything. True to Generation Bruh, they see the obvious best path forward, understand instinctively that the adults around them are stuck in old paradigms, and fully, passionately believe that they can improve our norms.
They are subverting the way we have taught them to live—in fear and despair, with a fixed amount of power—and have somehow imagined a world in which fear does not dominate, power is not hoarded by those who fund campaigns, and where the despairing world around them is only a starting point. As in the neighborhood of Mr. Rogers, the imaginary world found its way into our perceived world, and they have begun to believe the impossible. They have begun to believe that the way we neighbor is more powerful than what we acquire. The reality we created burst, unwelcome, into their world through a broken and dangerous kid with a military-grade weapon; in return they are turning our world upside down by imagining a new world in which we listen to one another and act on each other’s behalf.
We find ourselves listening to them because their voices have an imaginary ring to them. Could a kid really be speaking this kind of truth to power? Are the rules to which we adhere not rules at all, but just old ways of respecting hollow power? Could we the people actually have the power to change the way we relate to each other? Whether we agree with their demands or not, can we be refreshed by the idea that we are not stuck in a world of defensive powerlessness?
We live in fraught times, but change is afoot because Helpers abound. Look around and see the impact of protest, notice the subtle shifts in public discourse. We are slowly edging into this new way of imagining our connections to one another. From Black Lives Matter to #metoo to #neveragain, public voices are teaching us to listen to one another in order to become better neighbors. Subtle or overt, at the very least we might notice that protest is not a vain screaming into the wind; it often offers a path forward. If you find yourself listening to these students with an open heart, notice what it takes for you to decide to reject their perspective, clinging to the old rules you know will never work. These voices are not political noise; they are organized counter narratives openly lamenting what is wrong and pointing out ways to change our “normal” from destructive to healthy. These voices are changing the way we do life in America, and they lend courage to all of us who reject despair. Imagine that these Parkland students echo Mr. Rogers, pleading with us all, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”