"Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs." (Mark 10:14b, NRSV)
He has been called the unlikely superhero of 2018, a Presbyterian saint, and the antidote to the toxic effects of our high tech, consumerist, fake news, social media driven society. This is the year of Fred Rogers, known to most of us as "Mr. Rogers," whose gentle demeanor was the hallmark of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" on public television from 1968 to 2001. He is also known as the Rev. Fred Rogers, who was ordained by Pittsburgh Presbytery in 1963 to serve as an evangelist to children through television. Now fifteen years since his death, he has been honored this year with a U.S. postage stamp, a PBS special, and an acclaimed film documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" which has been the surprise hit of the summer. A theatrical film starring Tom Hanks is in pre-production for a 2019 release.
Although Fred Rogers thoroughly saw his television show as a ministry, he never presented himself as a minister or identified the religious moorings of his attitudes toward children. Instead, he embodied Jesus' love for each child as a unique, beloved, child of God. He steadfastly refused to treat children either as objects of amusement or commercial exploitation. He respected them, and showed kindness, gentleness, and love.
Jesus' welcome to children, recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, was radical for its time. Our romanticized images of children and childhood are inventions of the modern era. In New Testament times, children were among the lowest on the social ladder. The Gospel of Matthew reports how the tyrant Herod, hearing of the birth of a rival king, thought nothing of ordering the massacre of children in Bethlehem in an effort to eliminate the infant Christ. Herod was thwarted, however, when the Holy Family escaped the violence and became refugees in the foreign land of Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18).
This summer will also be known as the summer of the Zero Tolerance Policy which for several weeks forcibly separated children as young as 12 months old from their undocumented parents when they entered the U.S. Like the Holy Family in Egypt, most of those entering were seeking refuge from violence and death threats in their native lands. Even though the policy has been amended, there are still thousands of children who have yet to be reunited with their parents, and many who may never be. The trauma inflicted on many of these children will scar them for life.
The inside-out, upside-down church that God calls us to be belongs to a refugee child who grew up to welcome, bless, and honor children. What do our ministries say about the dignity and value of children? How do we exhibit the Christ-like kindness of Fred Rogers to the children in our community? How are we acting and advocating for their safety and welfare? For a generation, the church has been coming to terms with its own history of child abuse, which has left many suspicious of churches as safe, welcoming places for children. We have a holy responsibility from Jesus himself to welcome, protect, and bless these most vulnerable members of God's family both in the church and in the world. As Presbyterians we proudly claim both Jesus and Mr. Rogers. May our actions reflect their love for children and make the world more like the Kingdom of God, or at least Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.