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Making Social Change with Help from Mister Rogers

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If the sky were clear, the aluminum foil wrapped just so around the rabbit-ears antenna, and no one tried to make a piece of toast in the toaster, I could watch occasionally an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” at my childhood home outside of St. Albans, West Virginia.

It was a lot of work for a 5-year-old to tackle just for a half-hour morning program, but it was my oasis.

I treasured any time I could get with Mr. Rogers because it was a time when no one yelled at me, no one ridiculed me, no one made me feel ashamed.

With a slow, measured and compassionate pace, Fred Rogers introduced me to another world – one in which I was special, loved and affirmed.

And then it seems it all slipped away from me. One day, cable television appeared on our dirt road, and I suddenly outgrew King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine, Mr. McFeely, Daniel Striped Tiger and the trolley that transported me to be with them.

Out of the blue, a short while ago, a friend asked, “What about Mister Rogers? Do you ever think of him?”

I had not thought about him for years, but the mere mention brought a smile to my face and sense of calmness to my soul.

This year will mark 15 years since the death of the Rev. Fred Rogers (did you know he was an ordained Presbyterian minister?) and the 50th anniversary of The Neighborhood.

The show debuted in 1968, shortly after the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

Suited in his iconic cardigan sweaters (his mother knitted each of them), he sought to imagine the kingdom of God through make-believe land, puppets, subtle stories and compassionate songs. Rogers tried to envision and create the peaceable kingdom.

After my friend’s query, I began to wonder, “What would Mister Rogers do in the age of Trump? How would he observe Lent and celebrate Easter this year?”

Last year I saw a sign at a rally that inverted a line from the Serenity Prayer: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change, but changing the things I cannot accept.”

For me, I cannot accept for someone to treat another person as anything less than a child of God.

But how do I incarnate this sentiment? Do I devote all of my energies to politics? Do I yell at the top of my lungs at every injustice?

Do I shame all of those involved in sinful actions that harm vast sums of the global population? Those are all legitimate responses, but they do not speak to me.

How do I help present some foretaste of glory divine? I discovered my answer in the innocent invitation offered in the Mister Rogers theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I could learn the art and practice of “neighboring.”

To my dismay, however, I have found neighboring to be difficult, slow and frustrating work.

I found that I can love, in the abstract, almost anyone. In this manner, I can fulfill the commandment to love my neighbor as myself quite well.

My abstract love works if I keep my definition of neighbor amorphous and undefined.

Once I identify my neighbor, however, as in-the-flesh actual human beings with names and faces and stories, then my practice of abstract love falls apart.

What I need this Lent is more than the biblical imperative to love my neighbor as myself; I need Mister Rogers’ invitation: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

A professor friend at a college in St. Paul, Minnesota, introduced me to the 2 percent-3 percent rule of social change: If lasting social change is going to occur, one should seek 2 percent to 3 percent of social change per year.

On one hand, this amount of change does not overwhelm the social system. On the other hand, this amount of change is enough to give advocates reason for hope.

But many social activists disavow this rule; they want change yesterday.

Neighboring, for me, is the 2 percent-3 percent work for social change to which I am devoting my life.

Giving neighbors my full attention, listening intently to their joys and sorrows, honoring their stories and meeting them where they are.

Some will say my attempt at neighboring is pointless, meaningless and too slow. I am sure many said a PBS children’s show featuring a man who ironed clothes, played with puppets and sang songs about feelings was also pointless, meaningless and too slow.

His incarnation of the peaceable kingdom continues to inspire me today, and I trust that the long-term neighboring work I am doing will bring change too.

Picture for a moment what social change/neighboring in your community might look like over 10 years using the 2 percent-3 percent rule.

In one year, 2 percent to 3 percent might be difficult to pinpoint, but over a decade, 20 percent to 30 percent would look like a mountain had been moved.

This year the joke will not be that Easter falls on April Fools’ Day for the first time since 1957.

The joke will be on Christians, people of faith and people of conscience who think that because the world is not instantly better, their actions do not matter.

Easter can be a reminder, a generative moment, telling each and every one of us that we are special, our lives matter and all of us have the spark of the divine within us capable of great acts of love, justice and mercy.

Please, won’t you be a neighbor?

Travis Norvell is pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. A version of this article first appeared in The Christian Citizen, a publication of American Baptist Home Mission Societies. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @pedalingpastor.