Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

May 29, 2016: “Telling the Truth is an Act of Justice”

Personal Reflection “My Connection to Mr. Rogers” Tim Ray

When I was 9 or 10 years old Mr. Rogers was one of my Sunday school teachers. Yes, THE Mr. Rogers. The one many, many kids loved to watch on TV when they were young. I actually lived IN his neighborhood – about 3 blocks from his house.

Through my parents and our church I got to know him well enough that my brother and I became friends with his two sons, who were about our age. We would go over to his house every once in a while and play. I also remember once we got a back stage tour of the Neighborhood show which amazed me. It was like Dorothy looking behind the curtain at the great and powerful Oz. I have many memories of how he would teach us different things each time we were together.

As I look back on those memories so many years later most of what I remember is how caring and genuinely interested he was with me for who I was. He was one of the most Real and Authentic people I’ve ever met, and when people inevitably ask I always say that he was exactly the same person in real life that he was on TV.

As we all have done I’ve had times that I’ve struggled with life. At the time it seemed kind of funny but some of the strength that I’ve gained to deal with those stressors I learned from Mr. Rogers. He also taught me to give myself the gift of being just who I am… To accept the bad with the good and the daily problems in life with just being part of life – while always believing in yourself.

That as he says “You make each day special just by being you”.

In preparing for this talk my mom (Barb Opie) and I were talking about Mr. Rogers. She relayed to me a story that helps bring to light the essence of who Fred Rogers was:

My younger sister came home from kindergarten one day very upset. All she could say was that her teacher had died. It seems that her teacher had passed away very suddenly and the principal – thinking they were doing the right thing – just announced it over the intercom to everyone like it was just another item on their list to report. Now to a 5 or 6 year old child who doesn’t know the first thing about death this came as quite a shock.

My mom was furious with the principal but didn’t know what to do until she decided to call Mr. Rogers up to see what he thought. Mr. Rogers was quite disturbed as well with the approach the principal had taken. He very calmly said that he was going to talk to a friend of his, someone who specialized in child development, and who was a consultant to his Neighborhood show. She was very good at explaining to children all about the terrible things that sometimes happen in life, such as dying. Mr. Rogers asked her to come to my sisters school, the whole elementary school, and talk to the teachers and students about how hard it is for a child to lose someone so close to them – and how best to do that in a loving and caring way.

It was moments like this that forever endeared Mr. Rogers to our family’s spirit. He was one of the key people in my life that helped – and continue to help – direct me to be a compassionate and caring person. I will always be grateful to him for that.

Reading Erroneously attributed to Lee Marvin Tim Ray
I want to share with you a story that has made its way around the internet countless times in the last decade. It pops up repeatedly around Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Actor Lee Marvin was a guest on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson.

Johnny said, “Lee, I’ll bet a lot of people are unaware that you were a Marine in the initial landing at Iwo Jima…and that during the course of that action you earned a navy Cross and were severely wounded.”

Lee said “Yeah, yeah, … I got shot square in the [rear] and they gave me the Cross for securing a hot spot about halfway up Suribachi. … but, Johnny, I served at Iwo with the bravest man I ever knew. … We both got the Cross on the same day but what he did for his Cross made mine look cheap in comparison. The dumb [guy] actually stood up on Red Beach and dirctd his troops to move forward and get … off the beach. That sergeant and I have been life long friends. … when we they brought me off Suribachi we passed the sergeant and he lit a smoke and passed it to me lying on my belly on the litter. … Johnny, I’m not lying. … Sgt. Keeshan was the bravest man I ever knew – bob Keeshan. You and the world know him as Captain Kangaroo.”

On another note, there was this wimpy little man on PBS, gentle and quiet. Mr. Rogers is another of those you would least suspect of being anything but what he now portrays to our youth. But Mr. Rogers was a US Navy Seal, combat proven in Vietnam with over twenty five confirmed kills to his name. He wore a long sleeve sweater to cover the many tattoos on his forearm and biceps. A master in small arms and hand-to-hand combat, able to disarm or kill in a heartbeat. He hid that way and won our hearts with is quiet wit and charm. America’s real heroes don’t flaunt what they did, they quietly go about their day-to-day lives, doing what they do best. They earned our respect and the freedoms that we all enjoy.”

Sermon “What Really Happened to Mr. Rogers?” Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

Mr. Rogers wasn’t like any of the men I knew in the prison town where I grew up. The men in my town were tough. If they didn’t work in the prison as correctional officers, they worked building the new prison – they were always building a new prison. Or they worked on the roads, or building the houses that the new prison staff would live in. Those guys wore jeans and boots and t-shirts. Flannel in the winter.

No sweaters. And ties were only for funerals, weddings, baptisms and high school graduations.

But I loved Mr. Rogers. He seemed so grown up, so smart and gentle. He was different from my own father. Don’t get me wrong. I loved my dad then as I do now, for his strength and quiet wisdom, his fearless ability to DO anything, his focus and fierce pride, and his humor and boundless imagination for pranks.

But there was something so exotic about Mr. Rogers. Otherworldly. TV-worldly. He was like Ward Cleaver, Beaver’s dad, the kind of ideal that nobody in real life – at least my real life – could ever be like.

I know now that people did live lives of curiosity, endless learning and introspection, surrounded by books and genteel games, stories shared with children. I know because I get glimpses of that world in the pictures I see of East Shore back in the 50’s 60’s and 70’s. But as a child the only person I knew that I thought might be like those gentle men on TV was Mr. Griffin, my elementary school principal. I always pictured him living in house exactly like Beaver’s, and changing out of his sport coat and into a cardigan every evening as soon as he got home.

All of those mythical men had a lot in common for me. They talked about truth a lot, valued honesty and integrity, and never wanted to see anyone resolve disputes with their fists. All of them, especially Mr. Rogers, have always seemed to me to be pacifists. I’ve just never been able to picture Fred Rogers in combat boots and a flack jacket, so I was shocked one morning a few months ago when Joe read me the piece that Tim Read earlier. It was circulating facebook like crazy that day. I thought, “It can’t be true. It can’t be.”

And of course, it turns out the story is not true. According to, the most reliable online fact checking service I know of, the story about Lee Marvin is mostly true, but he never served in Iwo Jima and never served with Bob Keeshan, who was a Marine, but never saw combat. Keeshan enlisted two weeks before his 18th birthday, just before the bombs were dropped in Japan. Apparently somebody with a strong opinion about what a Marine is supposed to be, and a poor memory of what Marvin said in an interview, circulated the story. Then somebody else added the bit about Mr. Rogers.

God only knows why.

Fred Rogers, of course, doesn’t have tattoos, was never a Navy Seal, and in fact never served in the military. He got a degree in music composition in 1951 and immediately started working in television, eventually becoming a pioneer in both public broadcasting and educational children’s television, and finally, an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Mr. Rogers is nothing like a Marine or a Navy SEAL. Gladly, I immediately put the whole crazy rumor behind me, and set the world right again. Until a couple weeks ago.

You see, my 17-year old nephew Connor, who will enter the Marines in three weeks, asked me and my parents to go to the annual awards ceremony of the Palm Bay Magnet School Marine Corps Junior ROTC. He didn’t know if he’d be getting any awards, but it was important to him to share the event with us, to give us a glimpse into that which matters most to him.

The whole thing surprised me.

First of all, the program is HUGE. About 200 of the 1700 students in the school participate. Easily 40% of them were girls, and girls held most of the leading roles in the organization, including putting together the loudest, most raucous slide show I’ve ever seen. The Color Guard was all boys. When I was in high school, no boy would be caught dead on the color guard squad.

Retired Sgt. Major Roy DeYoung, the senior instructor of the ROTC program, started off by talking about what it means to be in his program. There are three words that he tries to instill in all of the young men and women serving under him, words that he referred to as core values. Three words: Care. Love. And Pride.

Care, love and pride. In that order.

I almost fell out of my seat. Knowing the little bit I know about the Marines, or more realistically the little bit I thought I knew about the Marines, I’d expected him to say loyalty, courage and pride. Guts and glory.

The cadets’ job, under his tutelage, is to care for one another, their school, their community, their country. To learn to love themselves while they learn to love each other. And to have pride not in themselves but in their country. They themselves were to strive for humility…not to allow themselves to be humiliated, but instead to know their own strengths and weaknesses.

He was using different words but articulating my understanding of humility: not to be less than anyone else, but rather to be right-sized. No more. No less. Humility is about honesty and integrity.

DeYoung turned the program over to his assistant instructor, Gunnery Sgt. P. K. Cannon. Like DeYoung, Cannon was handsome and clean cut, with an athletic build and a huge smile, and was surprisingly shorter than most of the young men he had charge of. He ran the program like a drill sergeant. I guess he IS a drill sergeant. Awards went to young men and women for excellence in leadership, marksmanship, academics, attendance,… every category you could imagine. Some awards went to individuals, and some to a whole crowd of kids. A few went up a lot, like the young woman who was in charge of the photo presentation and appeared in half of the pictures; and the young man who was graduating at the top of his class , and- I’m not exaggerating – 6’10” tall.

Come to think of it, a lot of those kids were really, really tall. Taller than Connor, who is 6’3″.

Maybe the Sergeant Major and the Gunnery Sergeant weren’t so short.

Anyway, Connor had been up a couple times to receive awards, always in the company of others.

Then Gunnery Sergeant Cannon asked for seriousness, as he called up one cadet with unusual loyalty, citizenship and commitment. My Nephew, Connor Nash. The applause were huge, then the Gunnery Sergeant called up Connor’s mom and sister.

The room got quiet as the Gunnery Sergeant, visibly choked up, explained that Connor had just suffered a huge loss. Less than 48 hours earlier, his father, Dennis, had died of esophageal cancer. And the next day, Connor, committed as always to the program and his responsibilities, showed up for school. To serve.

The whole room stood in applause. Tina and Morgan sobbed as they leaned on Connor, who supported them. As I looked around, almost everyone wiped away tears. I wiped away tears.

I have to admit I kind of dreaded going to that event. I thought all those military types, especially the instructors, were going to be like the fictitious Mr. Rogers, jar heads covered with tattoos, exuding the boastful pride of “confirmed kills” in action. I didn’t think that they’d be more like the real Fred Rogers, teaching love and caring, helping youngsters and their families deal with the tragedy of death.

Those two men in uniform forced me to change my stereotype of Marines, and acknowledge that as Connor joins their ranks only a month after losing his father, that these are the kinds of men who are going to help him grieve in a way that nobody else can. While his mother and sister and his minister-uncle cry and laugh and share memories and get angry and depressed, these men, who are so much like him, are going to love Connor and care for him and teach him the incredible pride that comes with grieving done properly. Pride for the dead. And humility that creates strength and integrity rooted in the heritage of their service.

I want to take a moment to say something about this morning’s chalice lighting. It was written by Rev. Walter Royal Jones, Jr. who served our association of congregations for 45 years. According to his obituary on record with the UU Ministers Association, Jones, Roy to everyone who knew him, was a conscientious objector who chose a year in prison over serving in World War 2.

For that fact of his life, I almost didn’t use the chalice lighting this morning, which is printed in our hymnal. It seemed an affront to the men and women who died in service of this country, on the day when we honor them, especially those who served in World War 2. In the last 70 years, we seem to have forgotten how much resistance there was stateside to entering the global fray. We’ve reached a consensus that World War 2 was a noble war against genocide and imperialism, fought by a generation defined by that cause. We call them the GI Generation, or the Greatest Generation.

But if I’m completely honest, as much as I stand for justice, equality and democracy, I’m not so sure what I would have done had I been called into serve to stop the genocides in Rwanda or Darfur during my draftable years, years in which I wouldn’t have thought anything of using Roy Jones’s reading.

Life just isn’t that simple. Truth isn’t that simple. And neither is justice.

My brother-in-law Dennis, I’ve mentioned before, was one of those correctional officers in the town where we grew up. He raised Connor to belief in fighting – physically fighting – for freedom. Fighting is the major responsibility of justice. An honor. A glorious honor. That’s his truth.

My job is completely different. Like Roy Jones, the conscientious objector, my job as a minister is to call us – all of us – to be our best selves, and to work for peace for everyone, including our enemies, to remind us of the worth and dignity of every single person, including our enemies. Including those who have committed horrible crimes. Like Roy Jones, I have spent a lot of hours in prisons visiting the incarcerated as an act of pastoral care, making sure their voices are heard, their wholeness beyond their crimes is upheld, because the presumption of innocence, due process and humane treatment are the major responsibilities of justice. That’s my truth.

And yet, as much as Dennis and I disagreed about those core beliefs that define our life’s work, we still loved and respected one another. I knew that a lot of the men I visited should never be let out of prison, and Dennis knew that without peacemakers, we could be completely consumed by conflict.

We both knew we needed each other. We even respected the fruits of one another’s labor, knowing that each of us only knew a piece of the truth about justice.

I know that what I saw of Connor’s ROTC instructors is only a tiny fraction of the reality of ROTC, the Marines, war, and combat. I know Connor, in his military career, will see horrors that he won’t want me to know about, and that we’ll probably be on opposite sides of disputes. Probably frequently.

But my prayer for him as he goes off to boot camp in a couple weeks, is that he learns the lessons of his ROTC instructors, the lessons that share a commonality with the lessons of Mr. Rogers. I hope he learns – as we all have to constantly learn throughout our lives – to have the humility to know that truth is not absolute. That we all have our own truths, based on our own experiences and stories. We will disagree profoundly about what justice means and how to achieve it.

But our main job is to care for one another as we care for ourselves and the world; to love ourselves while we love each other; and to have pride not in our own achievements, but in the country and other institutions we create together. Our job is to strive for humility…to each know our strengths and weaknesses so that we all may do the jobs we are called to do, whether it’s fighting for democracy or making peace, because each needs the other.

My prayer for Connor, and for all of us, is that we remember the words of Fred Rogers, the words we spoke together earlier:

When we love a person
    We accept him or her exactly as is:
The lovely with the unlovely,
    The strong along with the fearful,
The true mixed in with the facade,
    And of course the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way

May it be so.