By Virginia A. Cumberbatch
It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
This holiday season, the highly anticipated biopic of Mr. Rogers, starring Tom Hanks, premiered. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood explores the man behind the brilliant reframing of children’s programming. It’s impossible to ignore the genius, generosity, and genuine relevance of Fred Rogers then and perhaps even more so, today (if you really want to have a good cry, watch the documentary trailer).
At the core of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, children and the world were asked to reconsider our understanding of what it meant to be a good neighbor. Every weekday we were challenged to expand not only who we identified as our neighbor, but our godly obligation to practice the art of neighboring.
You see, neighboring isn’t just political or even ethical, it is biblical.
“Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Here God outlines our greatest obligations on earth to love Him and to be good stewards of our community, to be committed to bringing shalom (peace) to our spheres of influence, to be a good neighbor. This call to community and shalom may even cause us to recalibrate who we consider our neighbor to be.
Given the political, social, and cultural divisions around us, the art of neighboring will require much more than desire, idealism, or tepid social media engagement. It will require deliberate, selfless investment to shift our paradigms and even our social practices to sincerely care for everyone. We need to take into account those pushed to the edge of society, those we disagree with, and perhaps those we don’t even understand. It may even mandate us to step outside our normal roles and comfort zones to love and support the people within our communities.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped young viewers explore these very questions and find their role in this calling. He asked viewers to tussle with a question Jesus himself was asked in the gospel of Luke: “Who is my neighbor?” While the question felt different depending on the episode, Rogers’ answer never wavered. His definition of “neighbor” was whomever we happened to be with at the moment, especially if they were in need. We learned that each of us has the opportunity to be more aware, more vocal, and willing to use our resources, and perhaps privilege, to dismantle the -isms that separate us, where there should be connection and community.
In the age of social media and information exposure, we have created silos and echo chambers — where our ideas are reinforced and our circles of online friends mimic our own understanding of the world. What we see are all cherry-picked voices and images. While we have gained access to the wider world, we do not always meet the potential to create inclusive, loving spaces in our own daily life. Neighboring takes listening, empathy, understanding, and love. And I think that we all have different roles, practices, and parts in this art of neighboring thing. For some of us it’s the work in our family (perhaps starting over the holidays), for others it is within our community of faith, and for many of us it is the work we do every day navigating the community we live in.
So as we continue to grapple with fractured understandings of community, I want to challenge each of us to engage beyond the tweet, sacrifice beyond the protest, and move with a spirit of reconciliation and healing. And for those who haven’t given much thought to our call to “love our neighbor,” I want to encourage you to empathize beyond your experiences. There are people in our community who have been disenfranchised, brutalized, and marginalized, who could use a neighbor to speak up for them, support them, love them.
So the question I pose to us now, as we enter a new year is: What part will you play in the art of neighboring?
Virginia A. Cumberbatch serves as director for the Center for Community Engagement and Social Equity at The University of Texas at Austin and as co-founder of Rosa Rebellion, “a platform for creative activism by and for women of color.” She co-authored the book As We Saw It: The Story of Integration at The University of Texas at Austin in 2018. You can follow her style at @vacumberbatch and work at @rosarebellion on Instagram and Twitter.