University Congregational Church
Sept. 16, 2018
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” part 2
Last month, Eric and I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a movie/documentary about the life and work of Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister and TV personality. You may remember Mr. Rogers donning his cardigan sweaters and talking to the audience through the camera in every episode, welcoming children into his world of puppets, imagination, music, and conversation about being a kid and being human.
Mr. Rogers was very intentional about the themes of his show. He wanted to help them understand a confusing, sometimes cruel world, as well as their feelings and reactions to it. Rogers believed that children should feel as though they were special just as they are, and that every child should experience a place where they felt welcome, and safe, and accepted. This posture was affectionately termed “radical” by some of the team that supported his work, and indeed it continues to be today. Mr. Rogers was no “meek and mild pushover… he was a quiet but strong American prophet who, with roots in progressive spirituality, invited us to make the world into a counter-cultural neighborhood of love,” wrote Michael Long, author of the recent book, “Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers.”
A beautiful quote from Fred Rogers is as follows: “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”
This was the epitome of his faith and it was with this ethos in mind that he explored topics related to the Vietnam War, racism and segregation, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and, much more recently, 9/11. One very special moment in the film showed him taking off his socks and shoes to cool them off in a kiddy pool. One of his neighbors came by (an African American man known to the audience as the police chief), and mentioned that he was hot and the cool water looked refreshing. Immediately, Mr. Rogers invited him to take off his shoes and join in the cool water. The man who played this character in the show was interviewed later and noted that this was a radical idea for that time because blacks and whites didn’t share fountains or pools or communal … anything.
Mr. Rogers’ widow was recently interviewed by NBC. Joanne Rogers was asked what her late husband would say now about how divided America has become.
Joanne Rogers’ answer? Immigrant children. One goal that he truly succeeded at was teaching young people about acceptance and kindness. He said, “we live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
We are continuing our sermon series on immigration and justice. Last week, we looked at the Biblical and ethical concerns pertaining to immigration. Today we will hear the stories of real people who are making a difference in our country and putting their faith into action. This is the historical approach. Next week, we will learn more about the current situation and examine what we are called to do as Christians.
Our traditional word is from the letter to the Hebrews 13:1-3. Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
Last week, I read a number of Biblical texts about how we are to treat the strangers among us. This text echoes the same sentiments. But I want to unpack what the writer of Hebrews was asking of his readers. Remember that this is a pastor’s letter to his congregation in the 1st century (probably between 60-90 CE) before Christianity had a name or was a legally recognized religion. It is difficult for us to recognize what was at stake in such a communication. This pastor was challenging, urging, exhorting, provoking his congregation to show compassion with people in their community who were imprisoned and tortured. That sounds easy, right? However, this imperative is not satisfied by a moment of silence or by prayer for the strangers and the imprisoned. This pastor actually demands them to behave as if they themselves were the ones being mistreated. He asks them to expose themselves as a fellow Christian by being present with those who are excluded.
The Christians of that time were opposed by the majority of Jews and others while living in an atmosphere of suspicion and persecution. To be present to those who were strangers or imprisoned meant outing themselves as Christian and suffer the punishment. It is hard to think of a modern day equivalent… this was more than letter writing to government officials – although that would have been expected as well. It was calling them to be actively involved in welcoming the stranger and submitting oneself to the same fate as the immigrant or prisoner. So what would be today’s equivalent?
• Protesting the mistreatment of immigrant strangers at the border and risking being arrested?
• Providing sanctuary to undocumented people at the risk of being imprisoned?
• Speaking out over and over again on the street corner advocating for fair and equitable treatment of immigrants and prisoners?
• Marching at the border to demonstrate solidarity?
The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary says, “…to do so requires more than a sympathetic ache; it means refusing to distance oneself from those suffering out of fear and becoming the target of the same mistreatment, providing for the needs… including food, clothing, and all other needs, even though this meant exposing oneself as a fellow Christian…”
Our American history, along with the Biblical story, has advocated for those who are trying to change the course of their lives. George Washington is quoted as saying, “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respected Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges…”
Here are some noted immigrants to the United States who have made a true difference:
1. Albert Einstein. Einstein emigrated from Germany to the U.S. His is a name pretty much synonymous with IMPORTANT and GENIU. Einstein fathered modern physics, discovered the world’s most famous equation (E = mc 2), and developed the special theory of relativity. A man of many incredible quotes, Einstein has one that qualifies him as a true Global Citizen: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
2. Dikembe Mutombo immigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was an NBA player for 18 seasons, and is known as the best shot-blocker of all time. He played for six different NBA teams, but retired in 2009. Since retiring Mutombo has become famous for his humanitarian work, including starting his own foundation to improve conditions in the Congo, participating in the Basketball Without Borders program, and becoming the first Youth Emissary for the United Nations Development Program.
3. Madeleine Albright emigrated from Czechoslovakia…now Czech Republic. In 1996, Albright became the first woman to be the US Secretary of State. And before that she was the US Ambassador to the UN.
4. Isabel Allende immigrated from Peru → Chile → US. Considered by some as the world’s most-read Spanish author, Allende’s been awarded the National Literature Prize in Chile and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the US. She is related to Salvador Allende, Chile’s famed socialist president.
5. Freddy Adu emigrated from Ghana. Basically a soccer player since the womb, when Adu was just 14 he became the youngest athlete ever to sign a contract in the US. He then went on to become the youngest player and scorer in Major League Soccer history! When Adu was eight his mom won a Green Card Lottery, which allowed them to immigrate to the US.
I would suggest that these are immigrants whose stories we know in retrospect. It is tempting to believe that we would have supported their migration because we know what they contributed.
However, as Christians and as people who believe that we are all God’s children, it is impossible to separate people at the border by what they might or might not achieve in later years. As Hebrews reminds us, we are to show hospitality to strangers and align ourselves with them so that we experience their pain.
I want to end with a portion of my friend, Robert Bull’s, sermon on the 4th of July, just two weeks after he and his family became U.S. citizens. He wrote, “Two Mondays ago our family sat around the dining room table and together we completed immigration and naturalization papers for United States citizenship. This is a major step for us. It is not a repudiation of the country of our birth which we continue to love. It is rather an acceptance that the United States is our home and as residents of this country we have a civic responsibility to cast our lot with other citizens in full membership of a nation of which we are proud to be a small part.
When we came to the States, as potential new citizens, we instantly recognized the beauty of the spacious skies. We who are fortunate to live on the plains constantly see fields of amber grain stretching to the widest horizon. We have enjoyed purple mountains majesty and traveled from sea to shining sea.
Does that mean that these United States is perfect or that its’ citizenship are without blemish? Well no. One could point to the apparent large scale thefts so prevalent in Wichita. Have you noticed that a cunning group of thieves are systematically stealing all the right hand indicator lights from our vehicles? Now I know that the law abiding people who drive vehicles in Wichita realize that they are supposed to indicate turns, so I think that the thieves are short circuiting our cars’ electrics so that drivers hear that ticking sound but the indicators aren’t working. To make matters worse, I think the thieves have now started collecting left hand indicator light bulbs because I’m noticing an increasing number of those that aren’t working.
I’ve also noticed that there are alien amongst us, driving around the city and I wish the police would do something about it. The aliens are readily recognizable because they have a box sticking out of their ear on one side. I suspect that something in the car’s computerized electronics causes the alien’s aerial to malfunction and pop up out of their head because they can’t control the box and have to hold it on with their hands.
Of course, nationally America has a few other obvious problems but I have some suggestions of how we can deal with them.” He went on in this sermon to speak to some of the non-Biblical and ethical challenges we have as a nation. And he ended with this… “I can never be just an America; just a citizen of the United States. I intend to do my best to be both a citizen and a Christian. As a Christian first we are called to work within our community to recognize and to name our shortcomings… so that we can make true the words of Kathleen Lee Bates who wrote:
America, America! God mend thy every flaw.
Confirm thy soul in self control; Thy liberty in law.”
VanDerWerff, Todd. “9 Times Mister Rogers said exactly the right thing.”
www.vox.com. Feb. 19, 2018.
Soichet, Aude. “Mister Rogers’ wife on how her husband would speak up against political leadership today”. www.nbcnews.go.com. July 7, 2018.
Smith, Peter. “The ‘radical’ legacy of television’s Mister Rogers”. Pittsburgh Post- Gazette. March 26, 2016.
“The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary”. Volume X. Abingdon Press. 2015.
Fleischner, Nicki and Sanchez, Erica. “Seventeen Immigrants Who Helped Shaped the United States.” www.globalcitizen.com. May 23, 2017.