Long before he zipped up a cardigan sweater and became Mister Rogers, Fred Rogers was a young man who loved Jesus and was eager to discern his calling. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Rogers had many interests and talents, including music, puppetry, and children’s education. The question in Rogers’s mind was how he could combine these different gifts in a single opportunity to best serve others.
Dr. Junlei Li, the former co-director of The Fred Rogers Center, explains that “Fred was guided by a deep sense of service, of wanting to be useful to the world. He was driven by service even if in his mind it was vague for years as to how to best leverage his considerable talents in service of others.” Fred Rogers embodied Romans 12:1, deeply understanding that as Christians, the gospel of Jesus’s selfless sacrifice should compel us to view our whole lives as service to others. When it comes to our work, the proper response to the gospel is not to seek out the work that will earn us the most fame and fortune. The goal should be to find the work we can do most exceptionally well in service of God and others. In the words of Rogers himself, “You don’t set out to be rich and famous; you set out to be helpful.” As Rogers’s biographer points out, this “relentless sense of service to God drove every moment of Fred Rogers’s life,” especially in how he thought about his work.
But how would he serve? Where was Rogers being called to put his gifts to work for the glory of God and the good of others? These were the questions Rogers grappled with for many years.
Rogers had a term he loved to use when referring to discerning one’s calling. He called it “guided drift.” The idea was that, while it is good and wise to make plans, “one needed to live a life that was open to change,” led by the Holy Spirit. As Rogers was wrapping up college in the spring of 1951, he was planning a career in pastoral ministry, as this was how he thought he could be of utmost service to others. But just before starting seminary, Rogers saw television for the first time. As we’ll see tomorrow, this seminal moment produced a major jolt to Rogers’s guided drift, setting him down a path to creating one of the most influential pieces of culture of the 20th Century—a TV show that would make Christian values attractive to millions of children.