I'm an avid movie-lover. I wish I could say that I prefer the noble hobby of reading more, but I've got to be honest, movies engage me like nothing else. The stories, the characters, the plot. I appreciate different types of movies, too. Action, adventure, drama, comedy, mystery, fantasy, and more. Sometimes I even find a rare movie that stirs something in my soul. It becomes more than mere entertainment.
Recently, I saw "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" in which Tom Hanks portrays the beloved Mister Rogers. It's based on the real-life story of how Fred Rogers befriended a cynical journalist who is named Lloyd Vogel in the movie (Tom Junod in real life). I highly recommend watching it when you get the chance.
First of all, who doesn't love Mister Rogers? He's irresistibly endearing and emanates love and kindness. I've always been inspired by Fred Rogers, and not long ago I watched a documentary about him that was quite moving too. But this movie was uniquely beautiful in that it wasn't so much focused on Mister Rogers as it was focused on Lloyd, the journalist he became friends with.
Watching the movie as a Catholic, I felt I had greater insight into what was really going on. Fred Rogers didn't just become friends with Lloyd. He was intentionally evangelizing him. But even this secular movie couldn't help but show how Mister Rogers did so with the utmost sincerity, patience, and love. I was utterly inspired by the way he was so faithful to the will of God in his life, and he simply and purely dedicated his life to bringing the love of Christ to every person he met.
I walked away from that movie with some tangible, effective tips for evangelization straight from Mister Rogers himself. And I'd like to share them with you. (Don't worry, no spoilers!)
“For Fred, kindness itself was a practice. It was something that you work at. It took discipline. It took strength."
A lot of times when we see Mister Rogers, we wonder how he so effortlessly maintained such a profound integrity and strong moral character. But as a public figure, we never saw the whole picture of who he was. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy theory or scandal, but Fred Rogers was a sinful, fallen human just like the rest of us. He worked hard to practice virtue and train himself in the discipline of kindness. Here's what his wife had to say about this:
"Listen, it’s important for you to know that he was not a saint. Because if you think of him as a saint, then his message is unattainable."
Sainthood isn't unattainable, but his wife's message is clear: Fred wasn't an angel walking the earth. He was a disciple of Jesus who strove for holiness. The Mister Rogers we saw on TV was years in the making. Before he graced the screen he spent decades of his life at the feet of Jesus, disciplining himself, training himself. It was hard work.
To be clear, we cannot earn our way into heaven, nor is our holiness solely dependent on our own abilities. But "grace builds on nature." On one hand, we rely entirely on the grace of God for our holiness and perfection in the faith. We must pray for his transforming power in our lives. On the other hand, this process of growth and transformation requires us to use our free will to assent to the Lord's will. He can offer us mountains of grace, but we must accept it for it to truly transfigure our lives. This is why we must be intentional about growing in holiness and virtue.
"Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, 'Be holy because I am holy.'"
1 Peter 1:14-16
Our first tip from Mister Rogers is that holiness takes hard work. With the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, relying on God's grace, we should continually root out the sin in our lives, discipline and train ourselves in the practice of virtue, and always strive to be holy as God is holy.
Are you striving for personal holiness? Do you pray daily and prioritize your relationship with Jesus? Do you receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly?
He’s just about the nicest person I’ve ever met. I just don’t know if he’s for real.
Lloyd Vogel from "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood"
That's the thing about Fred Rogers: he was the real deal. He raises doubts in skepticism in people because they wonder if someone could really be that nice all the time. But we know his kindness was rooted in his relationship with Christ, and he radiated God's love.
Sometimes we wonder how the witness of our lives can really help lead someone to Christ. It's popular to say that if we live out our faith, people will see that and think, "Gee, what do they have? I want that too!" But I'll be honest, I often wonder if that's an excuse we cling to because we're uncomfortable talking about our faith. And how often do we hear about witness alone leading someone to transformation or conversion?
Enter Fred Rogers.
When we're kind, people don't think, "Oh, they must be Christian and Jesus is the reason they're so nice." They think, "Hey, they're a really nice person." And that's usually it. But Mister Rogers sincerely loved people with such heroic kindness that they couldn't help but see something almost supernatural about him.
"The Lord's mandate to go out and evangelize comes from within, by falling in love, by loving attraction. One does not follow Christ, and even less become an evangelizer, because of a decision made sitting around a table, or by one’s own activism. Even missionary thrust can be fruitful only if it takes place within this attraction, and transmits it to others."
What if we weren't just nice, but we lived out heroic kindness like Fred Rogers? Then others would be irresistibly attracted the supernatural life inside of us, the life of Christ Himself. But that means we need to "upgrade" our kindness from natural to supernatural, from human kindness to Christ-like kindness. Just like Fred.
Have you prayed for the Holy Spirit to bear His fruits in you? Are you striving for heroic kindness? Are you trying to love others not with your own human love, but with the supernatural love of Jesus?
One of my favorite parts about this movie was the insight that Fred Rogers was always intentionally evangelizing the people the Lord put into his life. His kindness got his foot in the door, and he nurtured authentic relationships with people in order to bring God's grace into their lives. He didn't turn people into evangelization "projects," but genuinely became their friend.
But he didn't stop there.
"He had the ability to meet people at this point in their life where something needed to shift. And he could be that catalyst for that change."
Marielle Heller, director of "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood"
So many people are lost in sin and are searching for an answer - whether they know it or not. When we genuinely invest in relationships with the people the Lord has placed in our lives, it is then that the Holy Spirit can use us as His instrument. The Lord knows what they need, and if we are open and ready, He will provide us with opportunities to help others find Him.
"Do not forget: every time you meet someone, you play out a real story that can change a person’s life."
Like Fred Rogers, we should nurture authentic relationships with others so the Lord can use us as a catalyst for conversion in their lives. Who has the Lord placed in your life? Are you intentionally forming genuine relationships with them? Are you open to the opportunities the Holy Spirit provides to evangelize them?
"He swims laps. Reads Scripture daily. Prays for people daily."
Joanne Rogers from "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood"
In the movie, Fred's wife Joanne tells Lloyd Vogel that Fred prays for people by name. Later in the movie there is a brief but moving scene in which we see him kneeling beside his bed with a small booklet in his hands as he prays for each person on his list.
One of the things I love about this is that Joanne Rogers lists this practice as part of his daily routine. He didn't merely pray for people when they happened to come to mind (although that's great too). He noticed when the Lord called him to love someone, and he made a daily commitment to praying for them. The scene where Fred Rogers is praying beside his bed gives the impression that he does this day in and day out, and he is utterly devoted to pray for others.
But he didn't only pray for them, he would go out of his way to follow up with them. The movie shows Lloyd Vogel being surprised when Mister Rogers calls him seemingly out of the blue, even though they had hardly met. Of course, it wasn't out of the blue. The Lord called Fred Rogers to evangelize Lloyd Vogel, and so he made a commitment that involved both prayer and the intentional development of those authentic relationships.
Who is the Lord calling you to love with heroic kindness and to share the Gospel with? Are you committed to praying for them daily?
There's no doubt that Fred Rogers was a gifted evangelizer. We think of his time on television as evidence, but his personal life testifies even more boldly to his ability to bring the transforming power of Christ into the lives of others. He committed to daily prayer and reading his Bible to grow in his personal relationship with Jesus. He fostered genuine relationships with others, and through those relationships showed them a heroic kindness that the world was not used to seeing. Perhaps most inspiring was the way that he intentionally carved out time and energy from his own life to help others come to know Christ. He was a disarmingly simple man who had such a profound effect on our culture and probably in many of our individual lives.
Thanks for the evangelization tips, Mister Rogers. May God grant us the grace to be a little more like you.