by Rev. Matt Ashley, South District Missional Strategist & Superintendent
It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
As a preschool television viewer in the 1970’s, I was a huge fan of ‘Sesame Street’, but another show I liked was ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’. Generations of American children like me watched Fred Rogers, the affable Presbyterian minister turned television personality, sing the lyrics to the above song as he came through the front door smiling at the camera, hanging his coat in the closet and replacing it with a comfortable sweater, carefully placing aside his dress shoes and putting on slippers.
Rogers taught children about the importance of kindness and compassion, about the inherent worth of each and every person God has created, about the importance of loving your neighbor.
In real life, Fred Rogers was a product of his generation and held some views that many of us cannot agree with, but he also took his commitment to being a good neighbor to groundbreaking lengths. The documentary talked about an occasion in the 1970’s when Mr. Rogers shocked and angered many Anglo-American viewers by inviting a Black character on his show to take off his shoes and socks and join him in dipping his feet in a pool of cool water on a hot summer day. This level of close friendship and physical closeness between white and black characters was a powerful subversion of the racial divisions of the day.
In our current era of deep racial and political tensions in America, the documentary hit me hard because, as a country, we seem to have forgotten the gentle lessons about grace, kindness, and neighborliness that a Conservative Republican children’s television actor taught us growing up.
I’m reading John Ortberg’s book ‘The Art of Neighboring’ in which he talks about building genuine relationships with people who live and work around you. Ortberg asks, ‘What if we took the time to get to know the people next to us and discovered they weren’t so menacing after all? Perhaps we’d find that the people on our block are normal people just like us. They go to work, hang out with their kids, and put their pants on one leg at a time. At the end of the day, they long for a place to belong, a place to be accepted and cared for. They want to do something significant with their lives, something that really matters.’
That sounds like the work of the church to me. Are we as United Methodists dedicated to the task of connecting with our neighbors? And not just the neighbors who are like us, but the neighbors who seem very different than us? Are we willing to ask even those whom we might tend to harbor resentments against if we can be good neighbors to them?
I write these words with the understanding that the desire to be a good neighbor has to go beyond kind gestures. I am a person who grew up in a comfortable middle-class home, with opportunities to pursue an education and career, and without facing barriers such as racism, heterosexism, and misogyny that many others do. Part of my call as a Christian and as a good neighbor is to work for the common good, which means doing my part to tear down the barriers that impede the life and liberty of many of my neighbors.
On November 10th, I will join other Desert Southwest Conference staff in a workshop on Cultural Competency. We will be learning to grow in our ability to understand and value other cultures and to be bridge builders between cultures.
This same training will become available to pastors and lay people in the DSC in coming months. I hope you will not only participate in the training when it comes to your area, but that you will embrace it as an opportunity to learn how to better love your neighbors.
It’s just too beautiful a day to continue being a divided people. Let’s be good neighbors instead.
Thanks for listening –