I’ve been waiting for a couple of open days so that I can tell you about a movie — the movie that I’ve been thinking about every day for weeks now. I think about it when I watch TV. I think about it when I read the news. I think about it as I plan the classes I will teach during the upcoming Autumn Quarter.

But summer has been busy, and I haven’t found a couple of open days to craft the review that this movie deserves. I’ve found an hour.

So I’m just going to write as fast as I can, sharing a rush of thoughts as they come to me.

First, I need to tell you a story.


My wife and I received an unexpected gift in the mail this week. (Aren’t all honest-to-goodness gifts unexpected?)

We recently visited the home of poet Luci Shaw and her husband — adventurer, entrepreneur, and author John Hoyte — in Bellingham, Washington, and I mentioned, as we were leaving, that I admired the paper lanterns in front of their home.

A couple of weeks later, I received one in the mail — a blessing from Luci herself.

It wasn’t just a paper lantern: It was special design for use outdoors — it absorbs daylight, and then it glows like a moon at night.

I can’t think of a better picture of Luci herself: She shows up at the page almost every day, attentive to what is before her, opening herself to revelation, and then writing the words to come to mind. Her words translate her experience. She has more books shining with poetry than most of my other favorite poets’ books put together.

She receives light; she holds it; she shares it with the world.

You might say that Luci practices her poetry religiously. What is religionanyway, but the way in which we demonstrate, moment by moment, what we believe?

As the author David Dark has said, “Life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious.” (He actually gave a book that title.) A person may affirm or deny religious beliefs until he’s blue in the face, but we will know what he believes in, what he worships, whom he serves… more by what he does than what he says.

Dark has also remarked that you can tell a lot about a person’s religion by examining their receipts. He knows the Bob Dylan chorus well: “It may be the devil / Or it may be the Lord… / You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

These times are on fire with destructive hatred, soul-sickening speech, and world-shattering violence. I want to glow like Luci Shaw does, speaking my belief in the God who makes himself known in beauty, truth, and love, but—even more so—showing it in my treatment of everyone, moment by moment. I want my receipts to demonstrate generosity, as her receipt for this paper lantern certainly does. I want my writing to be evidence of love, reflecting the love that I witness and receive in the world. I want it to be obvious that I take joy in kindness, gentleness, and humility. And I want my grief in the absence of those things, my suffering in the presence of hatred, to sincere and obvious.

I fall far short of that, but my personal saints and icons are men and women who remind me of that ideal.


How many people do you know who fit that description?

If you can name some, I think you’ll find that these are people whose company you enjoy. Perhaps these are people we should all spend more time during these days of relentlessly dispiriting news.

In the dark, as we are bombarded by missiles of prejudice, greed, vanity, hostility and anger, we need the lanterns who contain and shine the light we want to see illuminating the world.


Don’t worry: This is about a movie. Bear with me.


Two of my favorite lanterns are the singer/songwriter duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, who the world knows as Over the Rhine. They have a song called “If a Song Could Be President.”

If a song could be president
We’d hum on Election Day
The gospel choir would start to sway
And we’d all have a part to play

We’d vote for a melody
Pass it around on an MP3
All our best foreign policy
Would be built on harmony…

You get the idea.

This song came to mind as I watched Morgan Neville’s new documentary Won’t You Be My NeighborClearly, these lyrics aren’t an actual proposal: Electing an administration of singer/songwriters would be like hiring a team of Starbucks baristas to repair computers in an Apple store.

And yet, just as there is value in the song’s tongue-in-cheek wisdom, I think there’s value in imagining Fred Rogers as President. Imagine the kind of “foreign policy built on harmony” we might establish if Rogers’ words of compassion were reported in news headlines, from international leadership summits, and within contexts concerning immigration and poverty and science and law and order.

Fred Rogers was made for the work of children’s television, not for the pressures and rigors of the Oval Office—that’s obvious. Neville’s movie about the life and legacy of this wildly imaginative Presbyterian minister could not be more clear on that point.

Nevertheless, when you catch up with this movie, you may find yourself asking “What if…?”


You may have seen Neville’s award-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. That movie brought into the spotlight artists who have so far stood outside of it — brilliantly talented and unfairly overlooked vocalists who have served as backup singers to superstars. This new movie makes clear that Neville has a heart for celebrating humble servants who have not received the honors due to them. His filmmaking is an exercise of a gospel ideal: The last shall be first.

Fred Rogers, his new subject, is hardly obscure. We don’t often remember him in the pop-culture onslaught of competitive, spotlight-seeking celebrities. But he’s not last in anything. Still, watch who he is and what he does. He lifts up whomever he encounters. He treats them with respect and love. He treats those that society calls “last” as “first” in his world.

If ever there was an important moment in American history to pause and reflect on Rogers’ career, this is it: Here, audiences are invited to consider the inspirational influence of a man whose core convictions—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—seem like the opposite of what America is quickly coming to represent in the world.

In one of the film’s most resonant moments, we hear him say, “Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” It leaves the question with us: What is at the root of our lives, our decisions, our priorities? What is our religion?


I won’t go into detail about all of the laughs, love, and loss that Neville’s film captures — I want you to experience as many of its revelations as possible without spoilers.

I’m not going to praise Won’t You Be My Neighbor? as a work of high artistry that will influence filmmakers for decades to come. Neville is humble enough to know that his task here is to honor Rogers by letting his love, life, and legacy speak into this moment the way Rogers himself did: modestly, simply, intimately. Rather than creating an artifice that draws attention to itself, Neville makes a quiet movie about a quiet man. He serves his subject with strong organization of his material, graceful editing, whimsical animated flourishes that provide meaningful transitions and summaries, and music that enhances instead of overwhelming the material.

In the grace and power of its simplicity, this labor of love is likely to be the movie that means the most to me in 2018. The only thing that compares so far is Paddington 2. That imaginative comedy would probably have been too fast-paced, violent, and action-packed for Rogers, but the ideals at its heart suggest that Rogers’ influence might show up in a Paddington DNA test. I’ve seen works of far greater sophistication and artistry in recent months, but none have moved me, stayed on my mind, or had direct influences on my decisions like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 



I grew up watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood on television. I never enjoyed it as much as Sesame Street or The Muppet Show, which appealed to my lifelong loves for music, animation, colorful characters, and comedy. I didn’t put posters of Rogers up on my wall the way I papered my bedroom with pictures of Kermit the Frog, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, and favorite Disney characters.

But I doubt that any figure in my childhood had as much influence on my heart as Fred Rogers. His strategy of “slow and steady wins the race” worked on me: He seemed fully human, generous, personal, intimate — and not just neighborly, but both fatherly and motherly. While Muppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz stayed out of sight, their state-of-the-art puppets commanding our attention, Rogers was a magician: He slipped puppets onto his hands that looked like they’d been hastily sewn together from old clothes drawn from a laundry hamper… and it worked. I believed — even while he was in full view. He convinced methat I could do that too. 

And I did. My grandfather built me a puppet stage and I started entertaining my little brother and the kids next door the way Fred Rogers entertained me.

My first homemade puppet stage — and my patient father and brother — around 1973. “Jeffrey Overstreet’s Neighborhood,” perhaps?

And that translated into a love of storytelling. As I write fiction, I find my characters demonstrating the kind of courage and kindness that I want to embody in the world. I find in the voices of villains the words that hurt me in the world, and the words that I sometimes want to use to hurt others. I find myself expressing—often unintentionally, even accidentally—things I need to express and am too self-conscious to share any other way.

Rogers’ relentless emphasis on kindness — and, more importantly, his practice of kindness — made me especially allergic to shows of disrespect, to meanness, and to bullying at school. My mother has told me that I would come home almost inconsolable if I observed kids picking on their classmates at school, and I believe it.

This embodiment of kindness, this opposition to cruelty, this encouragement to talk about feelings rather than bottling them up, this cherishing of silences as much as speech, this celebration of imagination — these were formative forces in my life.

I didn’t understand, at the time, that Rogers was working in dialogue with the culture and politics of his day. The film’s attention to the very first episode of Rogers’ television show is revelatory: In responding to political turmoil among adults with imaginative storytelling for children, Rogers created something timeless that speaks just as boldly — perhaps even more meaningfully — into our present troubles.

Nor did I see Rogers as a pastor. Pastors of my childhood were men in suits behind pulpits who were in love with the sound of their own voice, and who raged against “The World” as a place of contamination and corruption. We were to withdraw from it. Embracing our neighbors was just too dangerous.

I struggle to feel peace in these days in part because so many of America’s loudest and most influential voices—in politics and in the American church—are demonstrating, and inspiring, values and behaviors that are exactly the opposite of those that Reverend Fred Rogers practiced and preached through his television program.

So I felt both exhilaration and anguish watching this astonishing compilation of interviews with Rogers; scenes from his long-running television show; testimonies from his coworkers, friends, and family; and evidence of his influence on countless families. How miraculous — that this is playing on big screens, with wide distribution across America.

Here’s another wild “What if…?” What if it makes a difference? What if it gives moviegoers an appetite for more grownups who lead with love, and who treat the last as first?


Won’t You Be My Neighbor? plays like a vivid, urgent beacon from a lighthouse during a storm: Come home. 

At the same time, it can also feels like an elegy for a world that is slipping away, one in which it was possible that the American government might affirm its care for children, families, and basic human decency by supporting art and entertainment of this kind.

It may be that it’s too late to hope for a revival of such compassion and vision in my country. It may be that we’ve strayed too far from practicing — religiously — the values that our national anthems tell the world we embrace.

If this is so, then this film is a summons to do what Rogers himself urged us to do in a crisis: “Look for the helpers”: those seeking to tell the truth, those prioritizing the poor and the persecuted and the abused, those who have the interests of children — all children — at heart.

Against all odds, we can go to a movie theater right now and bask in the light and heat of one of those helpers, one of those glow-in-the-dark lanterns, thanks to director Morgan Neville and all of his collaborators on this heartening, heartbreaking movie.


Amy Hollingsworth’s book about Fred Rogers is worth reading before or after you see Neville’s documentary.

In the book The Faith of Mr. Rogers, Amy Hollingsworth’s intimate portrait of a hero who became a dear friend, she writes,

[Rogers] knew that silence leads to reflection, that reflection leads to appreciation, and that appreciation looks about for someone to thank. “I trust that they will thank God, for it is God who inspires and informs all that is nourishing and good,” he once said.

Hollingsworth gets this exactly right, and so does Neville. He closes his movie by giving his guests time to pause in silence to reflect. Their silence and reflection does, in fact, lead to appreciation. And they take turns thanking the lanterns in their lives.

Me, I’m grateful for Fred Rogers. For Jim Henson. For poets like the generous, radiant Luci Shaw. For storytellers with big hearts who go on shaping my imagination — like children’s author Kate DiCamillo, young adult novelist Sara Zarr, and, well, grownups’ novelist Marilynne Robinson, presently.  For songwriters like Over the Rhine and so many musical “helpers” like them. And, of course, for the Redeemer, whose light they reflect.

In closing, I’ll steal two paragraphs from my friend and mentor David Dark, whose essay “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?” was published in America Magazine. Dark, after pondering the example of Fred Rogers in the age of Donald Trump, concludes as follows:

May we each meet one another’s gaze—perhaps especially the gazes of those whose words and actions offend or horrify us—as we try to be as real as we can in the days upon us. As was always the case, we are not only responsible for our own ideas; we are responsible, too, for the ideas we allow others to lift up unchallenged in our presence. We get to engage our collective anxiety constructively, one neighborhood expression of care at a time.

If you aren’t agitated, you aren’t paying attention, but the question remains before us: What do you do with your agitation? It will require strength and courage and determined wit, but there are many words to be had and even more words to be embodied, maybe even for the first time, from here on out.

One thing we can do in our state of agitation — I would go so far as to say one of the best things we can do — is round up our family, friends, and neighbors, and take them to a showing of Won’t You Be My NeighborIt’s a form of activism. It’s a chance to absorb some of the light that the world needs to see reflected in us — in joy, in generosity, in tenderness — and, yes, in grief.

Look for the helpers. Go see this movie. Soak up the light. And strive to be lanterns.