Yes that Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers, the star of the iconic PBS children’s show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers (he is so iconic as that character, I don’t really think calling him Fred is right, and I don’t know what else to call him).
When I was a small child my father would occasionally take me with him up his paycheck. My father worked night turn (10:00 p.m. – 6:00 a.m.) and paychecks were delivered on Tuesday afternoon, which was his day off so he would usually swing by pick up his paycheck so my mother could do the banking the next day, that wasn’t unusual for the time (the 1970’s).
What was unusual was that he was a guard at arguably the toughest maximum security prison in Pennsylvania, so going with him to pick up his paycheck meant taking me, 5 or six years old at the time, to the prison. The checks were held in the office inside the sally port, so as he went inside to pick up his check, I would be left outside the first gate of the sally port in a little waiting area. And that is where I met Mr. Rogers. I didn’t just meet Mr. Rogers, I talked to him. He asked me my name and gave me an autographed picture.
Mr. Rogers was at the prison to sign pictures and generally comfort kids visiting their dads in that very unpleasant place. And without asking what I was doing there, he spoke a few kind word to me too, and he signed a picture to his friend John, before going on his way. I was thrilled.
My father collected his paycheck, looked at the picture I showed him with pride very briefly, and we headed out to the parking lot. He just wanted to pop into the guard shack in the parking lot for a minute to talk to his friend (likely about when they would be able to talk on their CBs, remember it was the 70’s). And my dad told me to just wait outside for a second, which I was happy to do, there was a broad strip of grass between the fence and pavement filled with the kinds of creepy-crawlies that little boys love.
All the while I was playing, I was uncharacteristically careful not to damage the photo of Mr. Rogers; it was special, no one I knew had anything like it. And then as I was playing something amazing happened. I heard a very familiar voice call my name from behind. And I turned around in absolute awe.
Like any 70’s kid I had been thoroughly conditioned to never talk to strangers, but this was no stranger, this was my neighbor. When I turned around there he was, Mr. Rogers. He had remembered my name, used it, and was now looking at me with concern; I was playing alone, and seemingly unsupervised in a prison parking lot (and believe it or not the prison wasn’t/isn’t in the best neighborhood).
Mr. Rogers asked me with gentle concern “who is with you?” I pointed to the little octagonal block house about 20 yards away and said “my dad is in there talking to Mr. Kimack.” Through the windows of the guard shack you could see my dad wearing a Department of Corrections ball cap (with a recognizable, even at that distance, state crest) having a visibly amiable conversation with a man in a full guard’s uniform.
The look on Mr. Roger’s face changed and he asked me is “your dad’s a guard?” I said “yes.” He replied “those aren’t for guards” and reached down and grabbed the picture. I instinctively held on for all I was forth, the picture tore and I was left holding a ragged edged, torn picture of red cable knit. Mr. Rogers walked away, presumably to his car. When my father emerged from the guard shack and saw the torn picture, he asked what happened and I told him. He simply said “don’t tell your mother,” and I didn’t.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to tell her anyway. It didn’t make any sense, what happened was incongruent with all that I knew and believed of Mr. Rogers, and I certainly wasn’t a guard.
I don’t share this to tarnish the memory and legacy of Mr. Rogers. Truth be told, a few months later my father brought home a hand written letter from Mr. Rogers and a replacement picture; I threw them both in the garbage. And I met Fred Rogers for a second time in the 1990’s when I worked for a non-profit that served terminally ill children, and Mr. Rogers was generous with both his time and money and was genuinely nice to the staff.
And looking back, I can see how Mr. Rogers could have acted out of character that afternoon. Simply being in that prison, known colloquially as “the wall,” even the visiting room, could be jarring. Perhaps he heard of or even witnessed guards mistreating prisoners. Perhaps he saw some of the petty corruption that seemed in retrospect to be commonplace (I can remember hearing prison guards boast that they never paid for their cigarettes or that the food at a barbecue was beef that was too good for the prisoners). Perhaps he heard a guard say something cruel about an inmate’s child.
I share this story for one reason, Mr. Rogers, probably rightfully so, is the American icon of niceness. If anyone was ever going to be let into heaven based on his own merits most would say Mr. Rogers deserves to be the guy. But he doesn’t. In fact based on his own merits Mr. Rogers deserved hell.
I want to be clear, I don’t know the spiritual condition of Fred Rogers, and I’m not claiming to. He was an ordained minister in the United Presbyterian Church, now known as the PCUSA, and some have argued based on that he could not have been a believer in Christ because of the trajectory and eventual apostasy of the PCUSA, but I think that is ungenerous and presumptuous.
At the time of his ordination there was a sizable minority of believing clergy in the U.P.C. In fact R.C. Sproul who graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary 2 years after Mr. Rogers (1962 and 1964 respectively) was also ordained in the U.P.C. If Fred Rogers trusted in Christ for salvation he is in the presence of the Savior in heaven, if not he was judged according to his deeds with God’s perfect justice. And that perfect justice could result in only one verdict, guilty.
Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And that the second greatest commandment is like the first, that you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:34-40, Mark 12:30-31). And that afternoon Mr. Rogers broke the 2nd greatest commandment.
No one can stand unconvicted before the bar of God’s justice. In fact, Psalm 130:3 says “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” That is the bad news but the good news comes in the very next verse, “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” To think about it in New Testament terms:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. – John 3:16-18
[This passage may not mean what you think. To learn more click here.]
Speaking before the Sanhedrin Peter said,
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. – Acts 4:11-12
The key thing here is that there is salvation in no one else, not even and especially yourself. I doubt I am as nice and gentle as Fred Rogers, maybe you are. But if you are trusting in your own goodness for salvation, you are lost; you have no hope to stand before the bar of God’s justice. But there is a sure hope, faith in Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).”
But everyone who comes to the Father through Christ is clothed in His righteousness and receives mercy not justice from the Father. The Gospel of John closes with this beautiful, powerful and encouraging purpose statement:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:30-31
Believe, trust and live!