Won't you be my neighbor? Why we chose Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers is great, that’s no lie. We could have just decided to make a shirt with him on it for no other reason than it was him, and it would have been cool. But the word neighbor, which of course he used all the time, has taken on a special meaning to us lately. That’s why we had to make this shirt.

In 2010 I joined the board of a local homeless shelter. Even as a social worker, I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never really worked that closely with those experiencing homelessness. After a few years on the board we went through some significant transitions, and long story short, our family of six moved into this shelter in November of 2016. We did this for many reasons, one of those being to help the shelter reimagine what it meant to offer intentional community and radical hospitality to those experiencing homelessness. When working with the director during our move in, we made a seemingly minor decision to stop using the word “client” for those we serve. Instead we decided to use the word neighbor. One reason being that words matter, and by recognizing our neighbors as our neighbors, it helps us from othering.

But for our family, it was literal. These folks were going to be our neighbors. We shared walls, meals, stomach bugs, laughter, tears . . . and life. It was transformative. When you are forced to live with someone, it’s hard to ignore their problems. As Brene’ Brown says, it’s hard to hate someone close up. Move closer.

For a year we moved closer. We’d like to say it was all great. But it wasn’t. Just like life with your traditional neighbors is not all great. But when you live with someone, you go through stuff together. And whether it was a good day or a bad day, when you go through stuff with people you see them through a different lens. And more times than not, our neighbors helped us far more than we helped them. We often found that we were the ones with the hang ups and stereotypes. They were then ones that saw us with no prejudices or pre-judgements. We had a lot to learn from our neighbors. We still do.

Mr. Rogers was a revolutionary. He spoke about kindness before it was cool. He showed an atypical side of masculinity that was light years ahead of its time. He invited “others” into his home when it wasn’t just unpopular, it was dangerous. He asked us “won’t you be my neighbor?” without knowing who we were, what we looked like, or what we’d done. That, to us, is old school social work.

For another blog about our life in a shelter, see this.  

To buy your own Mr. Rogers shirt, click here


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