“A Rainbow Connection in the Neighborhood”
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
The First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
October 14, 2012
(If you know it sing it out loud before reading any further…!)
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,
a beautiful day for a neighbor…
would you be mine?
could you be mine?
won’t you be my neighbor![i]
For children and parents of a certain era, children’s television was Mister Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street. The two shows were on almost every day; Kermit the Frog and King Friday were regular visitors to households across America. But I am not celebrating Fred Rogers and Jim Henson, the originators of these shows, merely because they were famous. As Fred Rogers himself said, “Fame is a four letter word, and like tape or zoom or face or pain or life or love, what ultimately matters is what we do with it.”[ii]
Henson and Rogers were prophetic people. Each had a vision for what they wanted to accomplish in their lives. Their individual visions took time to develop, but once they knew what they wanted to do, they did it with all their heart. And they did it for the children, for our future. Some of you know there is a traditional greeting among the Masai people of East Africa, “And how are the children?” Kasserian Ingera¸literally “are the children well?” They ask this of one another because the future of the people depends upon the well being of the children. How are the children?
There are many Unitarian Universalists I could have spoken about today who have dedicated their lives to the well being of children in our society. We have deep roots in children’s development: Abigail Adams Eliot and Elizabeth Parker Peabody, who pioneered nursery and kindergarden education in this country, Dorothea Dix, Joseph Jordan, Arthur Lismer, Bronson Alcott, and Peter Cooper, who founded schools for African-Americans, impoverished youth, young inventors, young philosophers, and young artists, Sophia Lyon Fahs, who more than anyone else helped create our own religious educational approach of fostering young people’s own ideas and spirituality.[iii] This tradition continues with many in this room who work in education, serve on school boards, raise children, and care for kids in so many ways.
Fred Rogers and Jim Henson were not Unitarian Universalist. Mister Rogers was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. Jim Henson grew up in the faith of Christian Science, and though in later years he was not an active participant in any organized religion, he remained a deeply spiritual person. I celebrate them today because I believe the way they made use of their lives and abilities was of great significance, and we can learn something from them both.
They were starkly different people. Fred Rogers was a rather awkward, stiff man; even in adult company he spoke in that meticulous-enunciating-every-word-drawl that you may have heard on his show.[iv] He was an only child growing up in Western Pennsylvania. He went into television after watching some and being disgusted by how bad it was. He thought to himself, well, that’s terrible, I must be able to do better than that. He went to New York and was soon working as a floor manager on shows like NBC Opera Theater and Gabby Hayes’s western hour.
Although these shows were popular, they still didn’t satisfy his vision of what television could be. In his words, Mr. Rogers felt that those who work in television are chosen to be servants – and as servants, that they have an opportunity to meet the deeper needs of those who listen day and night. So he moved back to Pittsburgh and helped start a public television station, WQED, the first community-sponsored station in the United States. And he began his own show, “The Children’s Corner”, kind of a precursor to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which began nine years later, in 1963. He got his seminary education around then – not to be a congregational pastor, he always knew his ministry was in television, and he always saw it as a ministry. He would wake up at 5 am every morning and spend the next three hours praying for everyone in his life, and then he would go to work.
The show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran for over 30 years. It didn’t change much, in format, during all that time: Mister Rogers, walks in, sings some songs, changes his sweater, the show visits a fantasy land with some trains and a king and queen, Mister Rogers talks with some people in his neighborhood, like Mr. McFeely, the mailman, and then he changes his shoes and the show ends. It is, to be honest, almost excruciatingly boring from the viewpoint of most adults. But Mister Rogers didn’t make the show for adults. There are no knowing asides for the benefit of the parent population, as you find in almost every kids’ movie of the last twenty years, there are no adult jokes flown way over the head of the infant. Mister Rogers has his focus on one thing – the little child on the other end of the camera. He always tried to imagine, in his mind, one child sitting at home, and speak to that child. Not any child in particular, just imagine there was one child watching who he needed to reach. He spoke slowly and carefully, didn’t try to be clever or wow them.
Because he wanted that child, whoever she or he was, to know that they were special, they were important.
You remember what Mr. Rogers said at the end of every show? “I think you are special. I like you just the way you are.” He said his grandfather, Fred McFeely, who the mailman was named after, who used to spend time with Fred as a boy, and at the end of the day, Grandpa McFeely would say, “you’ve made this day special, Fred, just by being you.” Fred Rogers spent thirty years, every single day, trying to get that feeling across to children. Think how many kids heard that – think how many kids in troubled homes heard that, and maybe, just maybe, against all the evidence around them, they believed it. He told kids they were special. That’s all he did, in his own brilliant, peculiar, incredibly persistent way.
Now Jim Henson – Jim Henson was cut from a very different cloth than Fred Rogers.[v] Jim Henson grew up in small town Mississippi, where with his brother and cousins he would happily play in and around Deer Creek, a little river there, frolicking and daydreaming outside all day. Jim loved TV, especially the puppet shows like “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” and soon after high school he had a job in television, as a puppeteer. A year later, at 19, his “Muppets”, as he called them, were on the Tonight Show, and before Henson graduated from college the Muppets were starring in commercials for Wilkins coffee.
So with fame and fortune within his grasp, Jim Henson did the obvious thing: he packed it all in, handed over the business to his partner, and later wife, Jane, and went off to Europe to become a painter. Well, we might think he was crazy, but then, none of us came up with the Muppets. And maybe Jim just had a sense, I guess, that there was something in Europe he needed to find. Or at least that he needed to follow his heart.
As it turned out, Jim Henson did not become a famous painter – instead, he discovered, with fascination, the centuries-old traditions of puppetry in Europe. He came back with a new perspective on his art. As his wife Jane put it: “What Jim saw was that the puppet is as powerful as a human being . And in fact is more powerful – less concerned about what it looks like, more direct, more able to go to the heart of things…There is something about putting life in the inanimate doll. there’s a bit of divinity in it that all puppeteers understand.”[vi]
With a new sense of the divine power of puppets, Jim Henson rededicated his career to puppetry. But unlike Fred Rogers, Jim Henson was never the type to do one thing for thirty years. Although he was an incredibly hard worker, Henson said he never made a conscious career decision; he just followed one project to another to another. Jim Henson’s Muppets were on several quixotic episodes of Saturday Night Live, they were in several movies; including movies with pretty dark themes like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth; they were in Fraggle Rock as well as The Muppet Show, a variety show one eminent critic, a Unitarian Universalist minister, called “the greatest show in television history”[vii]; and of course they were featured in, and continue to be featured in, in Sesame Street.
Sesame Street was really the first fully intentional attempt to make television actually educational rather than just entertaining. The research of many experts on child development went into it, and Jim Henson was just a part of the overall genius of the show. But Henson had no problem with this: he was always collaborative, always delighted to work with others. He brought out the best in others, often in wacky ways. When he played Ernie and Frank Oz, his legendary sidekick, played Bert, he loved to play funny tricks on Oz, just like Ernie would play on Bert. This would keep Oz on his toes and Oz, in his quietly brilliant way, would muster a response. The Muppeteers were never satisfied with the first take, they were always trying to see if there was something else they could add in there to spice it up. Henson would actually encourage his colleagues to upstage him – and so you had this group of highly creative people who were trying to upstage each other in this atmosphere of joyful chaos. Very, very different from Mister Rogers, who thought through, in advance, every single word he said on camera because he wanted to make the absolute most of his viewers’ time. Of course, they’re both right. As Henson said, there’s a lot of different ways to grow spiritually, we’re all growing spiritually all the time, even if we don’t notice it.[viii]
It’s kind of an urban myth that Jim Henson didn’t seek medical treatment for the virus that was to kill him, in 1990 at the age of 53, because he was a Christian Scientist. Henson grew up Christian Scientist, and even taught in Sunday School, but he stopped attending later in adulthood. He really just was hesitant to seek medical care, like quite a few men tend to be, and what he thought was just a bad cold turned out to be a virulent form of streptococcal pneumonia.
As I said though, Henson was a deeply spiritual person. He found inspiration in nature and never took it for granted, always stopping to notice the way the moon looked or a leaf on the ground. Interestingly enough, Jim Henson, like Fred Rogers, started the day with prayer and meditation (in his case, a few minutes). He said he thanked whoever is helping him – and he was sure somebody or something is helping him; he expressed gratitude for all his blessings, he tried to forgive anyone he was feeling negative towards, and he would try to bless everyone who was in his life. And this is interesting – he would especially try to bless anyone he was having any problems at the time.[ix]
Although an extremely optimistic person, who always felt he could succeed at his life if he really tried at it, Henson was also aware of the reality of death. He wrote a letter to his children to be read at his memorial service. Part of it read: “please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it.”
It’s a good life, enjoy it. You know, when I first thought about writing a sermon about these guys I knew there’d be plenty to talk about, they were amazing people. What I didn’t know at the time was just how grounded their work in a certain outlook on life, dare I say, a theological outlook. Frank Oz said if any character got too serious on their show there’s always another character there to blow them up,[x] so I’ll look out for the dynamite, but I do also know that Jim Henson said if there was a “message” to his work it was that life, and people, were basically good. Life is good, people are good. Sounds like a simple vision, doesn’t it? Easy enough to say – but to preach it, I mean to really sing it from the hills, it’s best to have a crew of creative collaborators, a lifetime of dedication to the spreading of love and wonder, and hundreds of furry, intricately-designed, imagination-ready, vehicles for the divine spirit. (And maybe we all, deep down in our most authentic place, are really vehicles). Then you’re really saying something.
Or Mister Rogers, and his neighborhood. You know, Mister Rogers was never one to push his religion on others, but “neighbor” is a theologically rich term in Christianity. Christians are commanded to love their neighbor, and Jesus, in the parable of the good Samaritan, makes it quite clear that our neighbors are not merely those who look like us or act like us or believe like us, or even live near us. Our neighbors are whoever we meet on life’s roadway that we can serve somehow. Fred Rogers’ vision of the neighborhood wasn’t simply a location where everyone happened to be. It was a process of relationship rather than an accident of location: trying to be close to those around us, by taking a genuine interest in who they were. For him, it was in recognizing that God loved each and every one of us. Each and everyone of us are special, just the way we are.
So let us all, whatever our theology, seek to be a part of the neighborhood. Let’s see the magic of rainbows and the specialness of everyone, and sing it out in the way we live our lives. Because…
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,
a beautiful day for a neighbor…
would you be mine?
could you be mine?
won’t you be my neighbor![xi]
[i] from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”
[ii] from his acceptance speech at the Emmy awards.
[iii] All of those pioneers referred to in this sentence is due to the exemplary research of Pat Kahn, http://www.uuca.org/race-to-nowhere
[iv] My research on Fred Rogers comes mostly from the excellent documentary, Fred Rogers: America’s Favorite Neighbor, produced by WQED. And a few tidbits from his Wikipedia page as well as http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/5943.
[v] much of the research on Jim Henson comes from The Importance of Jim Henson, by Deanne Durrell.
[vii] Don’t quote me on this, but I believe it was Ralph Waldo Emerson.
[viii] his thoughts paraphrased from It’s Not Easy Being Green, by Jim Henson and others.
[ix] also from It’s Not Easy Being Green.
[xi] from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”