In 1994, Amy Hollingsworth was outraged to read a scathing attack on Mister Rogers Neighborhood by a columnist who accused Fred Rogers of harming children through self-affirming psychobabble. Her response -- copied to Mr. Rogers -- led to two interviews, a lengthy correspondence and her 2005 book "The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers."
Ten years after Rogers' death at age 74, Ms. Hollingsworth will be the featured speaker for a four-day conference at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on insights the gentle children's television star had for people of all ages.
The man in the cardigan on their TV screens was the real Mr. Rogers, she said.
If you go ...
- Spiritual and Emotional Growth through Life: Insights from the Ministry of Fred Rogers" Summer Leadership Conference:
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
$70 per day or $160 for the entire conference. Continuing education credits from the American Psychological Association for June 10 cost $100.
"He was more sincerely himself than I ever expected. He wasn't putting on an act at all," she said. "In his presence there was peace. You really felt that, and he cultivated it. It came out of his regular, regimented, spiritual disciplines."
He was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) but spent his career in broadcasting, including 33 years as writer and star of the Pittsburgh-based "Mister Rogers Neighborhood." The show, and a related series of books, taught children how to respond to the challenges, fears, dilemmas and transitions of life.
The June 9-12 conference aims to pass those lessons along to pastors, psychologists, teachers and other interested grown-ups.
It will open June 9 with an address by Hedda Sharapan, who works for The Fred Rogers Company, on "Continuing to Learn from the Wisdom of Fred Rogers."
June 10 is the most intensive day, with continuing education credits available for psychotherapists. It includes a session on Rogers' tactics to end bullying.
The June 11 sessions focus on his insights for adult transitions, and June 12 dwells on what he taught about human mortality and death.
Ms. Hollingsworth was born too late to have watched "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" as a child. She knew it primarily through Eddie Murphy's satire on "Saturday Night Live" until her 3-year-old son started watching in 1994. She was amazed at how the active toddler would listen quietly.
"I thought, this man really knows what he's doing. He isn't an entertainer, he's a shrink, a confessor," she said.
At the time she was a writer for the Christian Broadcasting Network. She would later teach at the University of Mary Washington but gave it up to write "The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers," published in 2005. Back in 1994 she pitched the idea of interviewing Rogers on CBN. She was told that the network had been trying unsuccessfully for 20 years. She tried anyway, and got nowhere.
Then she wrote her defense of him to the columnist. A few weeks later she got a call saying he had agreed to the interview. Her letter had convinced him she understood his work.
The interview led to a written correspondence that lasted until his death. She returned in 1996 for a second interview, little of which aired because she left CBN soon afterward. She will show unseen footage at the conference.
They developed a habit of praying for each other daily.
"Everyone who knew him closely knew that he got up early in the morning and prayed for the same people every day," she said.
"He had a really well-developed theology of neighbor that informed everything he did."
The biblical command to "love your neighbor" is essential to both Christianity and Judaism.
Rogers "believed that loving your neighbor is a central message, and that your neighbor is whoever you happen to be with at that moment, especially if they are in need. It's called 'Mister Rogers Neighorhood.' It's not called 'Mister Rogers.' His theme song was 'Won't you be my neighbor?' That was his focus," she said.
Those who argued that he was so tolerant that he had no standards misunderstood him, she said.
"It wasn't as if he didn't care about people's actions or motivations. He believed deeply in accepting people where they were at that moment because he felt that acceptance allowed them to grow," she said. "He never said not to grow or change. 'Tolerant' isn't the best word to describe him. The best word is 'accepting.' You accept the person with the expectation that your love and acceptance will help them grow."
Their relationship had that kind of impact on her. An adult convert to evangelicalism, she had a rigid theological mind set when they met, while he came from a more liberal stream of Christianity.
"He really tried to expand my horizon that way, and he did it very subtly and gently," she said.
At one point he sent her a lecture he had heard that she considered unbiblical. She replied with a letter that was "awfully judgmental," she said.
"He wrote back in the kindest, gentlest way, found the one or two positive points I had included and reflected them back to me," she said. "He brought me more to understand the mystery of God. He coaxed me very gently out of some of my certainty, and I think he would be very proud of how I have grown in that area."
The cost of the conference is $70 per day or $160 for the entire conference. Continuing education credits from the American Psychological Association for June 10 cost $100. Advance registration is recommended. For information phone 412-924-1345, email ConEd@pts.edu. or go to the website at www.pts.edu.
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416.