Nifty Neighbors: Mister Rogers and Jesus Christ
by Tracy Emerick, Ph.D.
BookSide Press

"Nifty neighbors are people whom you shared fond memories with and who showed you the best qualities of a neighbor."

Author Emerick sets his sights on two well-known “nifty neighbors” in this absorbing narrative. Fred Rogers, in his widely watched television persona as “Mr. Rogers,” is effectively compared with Jesus Christ with his millions of followers. The faith Jesus initiated is still the largest worldwide. Meanwhile, Mr.Roger's legacy of quiet compassion continues in the lives of those he influenced.

For thirty-three years, Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, created, produced, and hosted every episode of his series, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which targeted preschool children. Emerick describes the show’s opening, with its star singing the well-known song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as he walks into his house, takes off his formal coat and tie, and dons a sweater and sneakers. The author cogently observes that the wardrobe alteration signified his wish to be seen as a plain, easy-to-know neighbor, and his song invited that same notion. The author compares this presentation to that of Jesus—born in humble surroundings yet able to meet and directly attract and assist hundreds of people while speaking strongly of the role of neighbors in the life of those who truly followed God. One striking example is Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, who offered his assistance to a fallen, wounded Jewish man, even though the two people groups represented in the parable were well known to be enemies. Jesus often repeated the principle that to live a spiritual life, one must love his or her neighbor.

Who, then, is a nifty neighbor? Emerick suggests that neighbors may be close geographically or close in one’s heart. A neighbor will be someone remembered fondly, helped in any possible way when in need, and prayed for. For instance, Rogers undertook the challenge of many controversial issues, in a subtle, sweet way, such as creating a Black policeman in his imaginary neighborhood. At a time when swimming pools were still segregated, Mr. Rogers made a point of dipping his feet in the same pool with the officer and sharing a towel with him.

Author Emerick, with degrees in philosophy and business administration, a career in business, and experience in state and local government and church work, has here developed an absorbing theme—the comparison of an admirable, earthly character with the eternal example of Jesus. The author depicts Fred Rogers, who garnered many significant awards in his career, as showing an abiding concern for children and how and what they learn, not in the academic framework, but at home, with family, friends, and community. Seen within Emerick’s contemplative focus, Mr. Rogers, a devout Christian, never “preached” to his viewers but instead devised realistic, action-filled “parables” that offered practical guidance for situations they might encounter. This clearly corresponds to the way Jesus instructed his followers as recorded in the Holy Bible, utilizing brief, striking statements and morality-based stories that deeply touched a wide following.

Emerick has organized his comparisons neatly, including “12 Good Neighbor Lessons” conveyed by Mr. Rogers, along with biblical evidence that the necessity of “loving thy neighbor” was a central message of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Readers will doubtless gather from Emerick’s assessment that kindness, tolerance, and generosity generate nifty neighboring relationships, giving food for further thought and lively discussion.

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