Friday, March 21, 2014

The two Freds

Today I'd like to tell you the story of two men named Fred.

You don't run into the name "Fred" much any more, as it's faded from popularity these days, but it used to be quite common. It's a shortened form of the name "Frederick," which means "peaceful ruler." One of these Freds lived up to the meaning of his name; the other... not so much.

The two Freds share some eerily similar parallels. Both were born in the United States at roughly the same time (one in 1928, the other in 1929). Both were the firstborn in their families, and each Fred had only one other sibling -- in both cases, a younger sister. Both Freds, at a young age, were cared for and nurtured by older relatives -- one by a maternal grandfather, the other by a great-aunt. Both Freds were physically tall, gaunt men, especially in their later years. Both Freds were married and stayed married until their deaths. Both had children. Both were known for wearing unique articles of clothing. Both were Protestant Christians who became ordained ministers. And both Freds took a keen interest in the use of new media to spread their messages across the world.

That, however, is where the similarities end.

One Fred -- the one who may be foremost in your mind, as the media recently reported on his death -- chose a path that built upon and stoked up the petty, furious, hateful side of his personality. Having become the pastor of a Kansas church, he began to use his pulpit to preach salvation only for the elect, and to denounce and denigrate all those with whom he disagreed. His vitriol became so severe that many of his family members permanently cut ties with him. Disbarred from practicing law, and failing four times to gain public office, this Fred directed his followers to picket various public events (including numerous soldier funerals, concerts, gay pride events and political gatherings) with venomous signs: "God Hates Fags," "Thank God for AIDS," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates America," and the like. Lawmakers and protective organizations did their best to shield others from their tactics and their cruel messages. This Fred became so hated that he habitually wore a bulletproof vest as part of his daily clothing. He seemed to live for stirring up confrontations, infuriating his detractors, and generally trying to make everyone within the sound of his voice just as hateful and miserable as he was.

The other Fred you may remember with more fondness, especially if you were born after 1968. This Fred was a gentle, soft-spoken man; indeed, some of his detractors tried to paint him as effeminate and saccharine. But this Fred had both a genuine humility and a quiet dignity that tended to silence his critics, particularly when they met him in person. He was a gifted musician, and he enjoyed making and performing puppet characters for a local TV program; at some point, he realized he could use these talents to create a unique ministry -- one targeted to young children, and broadcast on television. A series of TV shows in the U.S. and Canada eventually led to the PBS show for which he became famous. Generations of children watched as he changed from his work clothes to a cardigan and sneakers, fed the fish, visited with his neighbors, imagined the goings-on in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and sang songs reinforcing the idea that his viewers were important, that they were special, and that he cared about them. Every show ended with the words: "You make each day a special day. You know how: by just your being you."

Few people will mourn the death of Fred Phelps, the hateful former pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church. But eleven years after his death, people continue to remember Fred Rogers with fondness, respect and love. He was kind, inclusive, patient, loving, explaining a confusing and sometimes scary world to its youngest inhabitants in gentle, understandable terms, while not talking down to them. He was, in his demeanor, his behavior and his messages, the polar opposite of the intolerant, exclusive, hateful and violent Fred Phelps.

Does it seem strange to you that both Freds professed to be Christians? At first glance, it seems almost impossible that these two diametrically-opposed messages could possibly have sprung from the same faith tradition. But the story of the two Freds, if it does nothing else, illustrates how a belief system works based on whether it is imposed from without, or felt from within. Faith is not something you dress up in, nor something you paste to your outside the way playbills used to be pasted to brick walls. It is something you consume, like food or medicine, and the act of consuming allows the ideas to alter you from within, to nourish you, to make you whole. Fred Phelps, I believe, never truly allowed the full message of Christianity to change him from the inside out, to make him better than who he could be alone. Mr. Rogers, on the other hand, seemed to glow with an irrepressible inner happiness, so much so that he passed that happiness over the airwaves to many children who desperately needed his message of unconditional love. That was his particular spiritual gift, from God to him and from him to the world.

There's a reason why Fred Rogers' television show was named "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." As an ordained minister, Mr. Rogers was intimately familiar with Jesus' teachings about the two greatest commandments (love God and love your neighbor), and about the Christian parable which illustrates that everyone is our neighbor -- but more to the point, he had a deep faith in these principles. And his faith compelled him to act, to live an example that taught a generation of children -- who eventually became adults -- how to be good neighbors to the people around them. That generation, whenever it models love and kindness to others -- including the people who acted with patience instead of anger toward the members of the Westboro Baptist Church who picketed Fred Rogers' funeral -- is his abiding legacy.

You can spend all your time picking at other people, pointing out their sins, flaws and foibles in an effort to change them from without, but that's never worked very well. Or you can show them by your words and actions how much you love and care about them, being as patient and kind as you can, so that the seed of change is planted first in the heart, and grows from there. Personally, I'd rather do it Mr. Rogers' way.


Rachel said...

Excellent post! Thanks for writing it.

MarieC said...

Beautiful! Absolutely beautiful!!

Tara Chang said...

Love it Sooz. Very well expressed.

Soozcat said...

Aww. Thanks guys.