Beliefnet
Add this name to the list of great spiritual leaders of our times:

The Rev. Fred McFeely Rogers.

That's right. Fred Rogers. As in Mister Rogers. As in public television's "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

No one has had a greater spiritual impact on our children over the past 30 years. No one has had a more powerful television ministry during that time.

Thank God for reruns.

The final original episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" are airing.

After 50 years in television (the past 33 on PBS), Fred Rogers, now 73, is moving his children's ministry to another virtual neighborhood.

Mister Rogers' cardigan sweater, blue sneakers and slow-paced time slot will be impossible to fill.

Gently, gracefully, prayerfully, Fred Rogers has stood against the strong, shifting currents of popular mass culture to protect the wonder and goodness of childhood.

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is the last calm, quiet, safe place for small children in the ever brasher, faster, more obnoxious and violent television world.

"In contrast to the frenetic, loud, image-piled-on-image formats of so many cartoons and other children's shows, the program is carefully paced to accommodate the thought processes and reaction times of preschoolers," The Journal of Child-Care Administration explains.

Mister Rogers has done more than accommodate children. He has welcomed them, and delighted in them.

That's because he's never seen himself as an entertainer or a television personality.

His work has always been a ministry.

Rogers is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In 1963, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ordained him as an "evangelist to work with children and families through mass media."

To Rogers, that charge didn't mean preacher. It meant practitioner.

"The whole idea is to look at the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it," Rogers told CNN recently.

He got into television in the early 1950s to find a way "to nurture those who would watch and listen," he said.

The show originally was called "Mister Rogers." He changed it to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." He didn't want children to think it was a show about him. He wanted them to think of it as a place they could visit.

What sort of a place? A place of grace where they would be accepted and loved just as they are.

"You are special and so is your neighbor," Rogers told Christianity Today last year, explaining the message of the show.

"God, in his great mercy, accepts us exactly as we are. How could we ever stand if God's faithfulness did not endure?"

Rogers' faithfulness has endured for decades.

Except for a few months he lived in Canada, Rogers has lived and worked in Pittsburgh since 1953. He and his wife, Joanne, have been married since 1952. They raised two sons.

Rogers never has made commercial appearances. He has limited marketing of the show to a few educational books, videos and toys.

He spurned an offer to move the show to a major network when he was asked to exchange his sweater and sneakers for a costume.

"The greatest gift you can give anyone is your honest self," he told USA Today recently. "It's a privilege to be trusted by children. And I don't take that lightly."

Nor does he take his faith lightly.

He rises at 5 each morning for prayer, silence and swimming.

Before he climbs into the local pool, he sings Jubilate Deo, a Taize prayer.

In his office, there's a sign in Hebrew that says: "My beloved is mine, and I am his." There's also a sign with the Greek word for grace.

When he gives an autograph, alongside his name he writes the Greek word for grace.

That's exactly what Mister Rogers and his Neighborhood are all about.

The grace of God.

Fredrick Buechner, another Presbyterian minister, described the grace of God this way:

"Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you."

Or, as Mister Rogers would put it, I love you just the way you are.

For our children, that's more than a good feeling. That's a precious gift.

Thank you, Mister Rogers. We are blessed to have a neighbor just like you.

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