As part of my writing process I make it point to investigate weird religions and to never turn down an invitation to a new church when possible. However, as I look around the dimly-lit basement filled with metal folding chairs and young people wearing a rainbow’s worth of cardigans, I’ll admit that I’ve never seen anything quite like this.
This particular church is located in East Nashville, or East Nasty as my local friend calls it, a neighborhood seemingly populated exclusively by crackheads and hipsters. As a condition of my invitation, I’m not allowed to reveal the exact details of the location. The whole setup reminds me of the book Fight Club. “When people need to find us, they find us,” explains a man in a forest green cardigan who introduces himself as Neighbor Ryan. That’s another quirk about this particular church: everybody refers to themselves as neighbors. I repress the impulse to judge them as a cult prematurely.
Just after ten in the morning, a long-haired man with a shaggy beard drops the needle on a wobbly 7-inch record. Out of the tinny speakers comes a familiar piano melody pulling me back to childhood. As if on cue, the group erupts into singing. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor.” Their smiling voices raise. “Would you be mine? Won’t you be mine?” A young man with horn-rimmed glasses walks up before the group. He sings along as he exchanges a trim sport coat for a yellow cardigan. “Welcome neighbors!,” he greets the attentive group.
He introduces himself as Neighbor Alex and greets new ones while looking at me. “Would you care to stand up and introduce yourself?” I hesitantly rise and offer my name. “Everyone, welcome Neighbor Anthony,” Neighbor Alex responds and twenty-three beaming faces intone, “Welcome neighbor.”
“I’m just visiting with Joel,” I explain. “I’m not a member of …” Member of what exactly? Mister Roger’s Neighborhood?
“Don’t worry. Everybody is our neighbor, whether they know it or not. If you have anything to add to our discussion feel free to speak up and share it. ” He turns to address the group. “Does anyone have any requests?”
“Another song,” calls out a voice behind me, eliciting laughter from others. “It’s You I Like,” suggests another. The DJ swaps out the record and soon they are singing again. Their joy is infectious and I find myself singing along from a wrinkled lyric sheet passed to me by a guy with an electric blue mohawk and color-coordinated sweater.
It would be easy to dismiss the group as another example of quirky, hipster irony if not for their sincerity. After more spirited singing Neighbor Alex begins a short sermon on the value of accepting people as they are. “Everybody’s special,” he says with a smile and a short girl with a crew cut begins to bawl hysterically. A couple of her nearest neighbors are quick to come to her side. Neighbor Alex invites her to share her feelings with the group. Through labored sighs she talks about how all of her life she never felt accepted by her strict Southern Baptist family due to her sexual orientation. “The one thing everybody wants is love and acceptance,” says Neighbor Alex. He places a hand on her small shoulder. “We love you just the way you are.” As the girl wipes her eyes, a rapturous smile flashes across her tear streaked face. For the next thirty minutes the Neighbors share more personal experiences and offer testimony on the positive effect of children’s television star, Fred Rogers.
I guess it is not entirely unlikely for a religion to spring-up around the television luminary’s special brand of love, acceptance, and childish wonder. Religions have started venerating far less. Mister Rogers, as he was known to his television audience, continues to resonate with people long after his death. Recently a petition was made to the US Congress to make his birthday a national holiday. “The Catholic Church should make him a saint,” suggests a Miranda, a Hispanic girl in a green sweater. I’m uncertain exactly what Mister Rogers, who was a Presbyterian minister, might think about that. Perhaps he would gently redirect the spotlight off of himself and invite Miranda to share what makes her special.
When I speak to him after the service, Neighbor Alex offers a stronger assessment, “Mister Rogers is Jesus without the Christian baggage.” He tells me how the majority in attendance identify as atheist or agnostic. “Don’t get me wrong I love Jesus, but Christians …” he shakes his head. As we talk more, he tells me about his background as a youth pastor in what he calls a “mega-mall church.” “You kind of lose yourself in the crowd,” he say, “and the money is another thing. Everything just goes to a bigger building.” Neighbor Alex tells me how he takes no collections and just encourages people to help meet the needs of their neighbors, be it emotionally or monetarily. He thanks me for joining them and adds. “If you enjoyed this, feel free to start something in your own neighborhood. I’ve already heard of groups starting up in other parts of the country. It’s very organic, very simple.”
As much as I’m apprehensive about religions, I have to admit there is an extra spring in my step as I leave the dank East Nashville basement. I doubt I’ll start a Neighborhood of my own, but I do think I’ll make an effort to reach out to others around me and let them know they’re appreciated. Wherever Mister Rogers is, I think he’d be happy about that.