On Sept. 21, 1996, a sunny Saturday morning, I had settled in with a cup of coffee and the sports page when the telephone rang in our suburban Texas home. When I answered, I was surprised to hear the voice of Fred Rogers at the other end of the line. Within a few seconds I could tell that my friend was weeping.
“Tim, I just heard that Henri (Nouwen) died this morning in Holland,” Fred said. “I just had to talk to someone who understands how I feel.”
Fred and I had often discussed Henri, the Dutch priest and acclaimed spiritual writer who was also Fred’s good friend. But until that morning, Fred had listened as I poured out my tattered heart. (“Fred, I have a question to ask. Would you be proud of me?”) Now he trusted me enough to reveal a piece of his own. I realized that morning that our friendship was truly reciprocal. On a few other occasions over the years, Fred shared things that troubled him.
Those moments of his vulnerability are what I think about most now, after having seen the wonderful documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It poetically and tenderly documents his human greatness, but in an unstinting way.
It was said that the puppet in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, Daniel Tiger, was his alter ego and in one episode, Daniel asks if he was a mistake.
Were it not for Fat Freddy, the chunky boy who was bullied, there might not have been a Mister Rogers.
His wife said she thought Fred seemed downcast after he filmed his last episode of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” Shortly before his death, he asked her if she thought he would be going to heaven.
All of which is to say that, yes, Fred was one of the greatest human beings ever to walk our planet, but he did not come to us from a spiritual mountaintop. He was fully human instead, a person who grappled with the inner difficulties so familiar to the rest of us. I think there is comfort in knowing this. My regard for him has only grown.
Now, thanks to the documentary and to a feature film due out next year, this wounded healer returns to us at the moment of human history when is voice and spirit are needed most. However beautifully the documentary is achieved, I think that partially explains its popularity now.
What was balm it was to hear him and listen in a closing scene as he asked his audience to take a minute to remember those who have loved us into being.
But it was this was the line from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” that I remember more than any other. Fred said that all of us, however broken we might be, are called to be “healers of creation.”
One of Fred Rogers’ favorite things was to make connections between people. I often have imagined his delight at the connections I have made these last several years, traveling the country with the message of our unlikely bond. Many of them have been profound but fleeting. Others have developed into friendships that will endure as long as I do.
Michael Gingerich and Tom Kaden fall into that latter category. I want to say that Fred would have loved them, too, but Fred loved everybody. It probably would be more pertinent to say that Fred would be in awe of Michael and Tom — and greatly inspired by their mission in life.
That’s because Fred shared it. Michael and Tom and Fred believed, as I do, that loneliness and isolation are among the greatest afflictions known to humanity. For his part, Fred gently coaxed us out of hiding, shining the light of his love and supernatural presence on our complexity, struggle and inner messiness. “Anything mentionable is manageable,” was one of his favorite sayings. And he meant anything.
Three years ago, Michael and Tom, two ordained ministers who had served more traditionally in Christian churches, decided to take a giant leap and create Someone to Tell it To, a remarkable nonprofit which provides just that. Boiled down, the two men exist to listen, free of charge, on the telephone, in person, via text or skype or email or carrier pigeon, to anyone who wants to share the truth of their insides.
It’s hardly surprising that Fred Rogers had been one of their foundational spirits. Michael and Tom called me a few years ago after coming across my memoir,“I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers,” in which I was candid about my suffering and depicted Fred’s healing response to it. After five minutes on the telephone in that first conversation, it was clear that we spoke a common language.
“Everyone has a story to tell and they should have the opportunity to tell it,” Michael told again me a few days ago. “And tell it without being afraid that it will be dismissed or disrespected. Every story has value and importance.
“When we are able to tell our stories from the heart, we become our most authentic selves,” he said. “We gain power because it helps soften the hard edges of our lives, and brings light into the dark corners.”
In their recently published book, the two men reveal their own hard edges and dark corners. And from their base of Harrisburg, Pa., Michael and Tom have listened to hundreds of others tell their true stories, which so often include the fear, regret, sadness, anger, shame and self-doubt common to all of us. Fred put it this way, quoting his good friend, Henri Nouwen: “What is most personal is most universal.” Yet most of us work so hard to keep our stories secret.
Michael and Tom, (and their families) have done this work at great personal sacrifice, but the mission — trying to make the world a little less lonely, a little more real — is gathering momentum. William P. Young, author of the blockbuster novel “The Shack,” was the guest speaker at a recent Someone To Tell It Too fundraising banquet. Prominent endorsements of their work pour in.
“The prayerful listening and counseling that these two men do is one of the most effective instruments for the healing of minds and souls that I know about anywhere in the world,” said nationally known pastor and sociologist Tony Campolo. “What a treasure it is for us to have these men serving so faithfully at work that is essential and, yet, has been left largely undone.”
The next chapter in their journey comes on Saturday, April 18. That day Someone To Tell it To hosts an event titled, “Creating An Authentic Life Through Storytelling.” Michael and Tom will share their stories and have invited me to describe my transformative friendship with Fred. The day will conclude with a show called “This is My Brave” —performances of music, poetry and dramatic readings by eight people who have suffered or are suffering from mental illness. Click here to read more about This is My Brave. I’ll say more about that in a later blog next week.
It’s bound to be a memorable day.
The program at Market Square Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, Pa., lasts from 2 to 6 p.m. If you are anywhere close, please join us. I would say there is a money-back guarantee, but the event is free.
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I’m sure there will be a few tears on that Pennsylvania Saturday a few weeks from now, but I anticipate much laughter and joy, too. The great irony is that true happiness and freedom are won by turning toward our pain and sharing our messiness with others, by coming out of hiding.
Women are much better at this than men. To the extent we can, Tom, Michael and I want to assure other males that you can be vulnerable and talk about your most painful inner realities and still do stupid man-stuff.
Some day, I’ll share the story about the three of us and the chocolate martinis at a hotel in Hershey, Pa. Or maybe I won’t. We all love hockey and are prone to salty language when we’re together. Typical men, in other words. But we also go places in our friendship that many other guys won’t.
“After she read your book, a former board member of ours said that the three of us were the most open and vulnerable men she had ever met,” Michael said. “Something about that can be sad, I guess, but it was a real affirmation, too. We are three guys with a similar message and that’s what makes it unique. We’re guys.”
Connected by Fred. Thank you for that, my famous friend.