Let"s take Mister Rogers" message to heart - Bishop"s advice: `Be a good neighbor."

By Stewart Vassau

On Religion

In October of 2004 my life changed. I was asked to serve as the local bishop for our congregation on Mercer Island -- to be the members' ecclesiastical leader. In essence, I was asked to serve all those neighbors on the Island who are part of our congregation.

In my role as bishop, which I fulfill as a volunteer on top of working at my technology career, I have the opportunity to work with the youth of our church. I would like to congratulate those graduating youngsters who have worked hard this year to complete their studies. This includes those advancing from elementary, middle, high school, or college.

Graduation is a time when families and friends unite in celebration of accomplishment. It is a time of reflection, a time of many last goodbyes, and often a time that is a gateway or passage to the next phase of our lives. Indeed, it is a time of change -- out with the old and in with the new.

As part of this change, I offer a challenge to all those who are graduating this year. The challenge is: ``Be a good neighbor.''

What does it mean to ``be a good neighbor''? I think that this can be illustrated through the example of an American icon named Mister Rogers.

As a child growing up in the '60s and '70s, I was raised with Mister Rogers and his memorable shows. I remember him walking over to his closet, changing his sweater and his shoes, and then asking ``Won't you be my neighbor?'' His question represented an invitation to include everyone, no matter what they looked like or could or could not do. It was an unassuming invitation to be his friend.

Children are so innocent. I often take my 4 year old to Dragon Park or Mercerdale Park to play. Every time I am amazed at the number of friends, or even ``buddies,'' that my son is able to make during a short, 30-minute outing. I believe this happens because children do not hold any preconceived notions, and have not been taught or influenced by stereotypes.

As adults, we would do well to find this innocence young children display. Too often we don't treat others with the same openness and kindness as these little ones do. Too often we look at other people's skin color, or religion to develop our opinions about those people. We know this is wrong, but it is hard to change. However, there are few things we can do to be better neighbors on Mercer Island.

1. Get to know your neighbors. We all have people who live next door to us, but do we know who they are? What about the parents of the kids in our children's teams, musical groups, classes? Do we know their first and last names, their kid's names, anything else about them? Have we gone out of our way to introduce our families to theirs? This is often the most difficult step, but one that can be accomplished if we focus on it.

2. Seek to be a friend. Friendship requires that we know more than someone's name. A friend is someone who we can know better than others, and is often someone who we can trust. Try to develop a relationship of trust, which is a fundamental part of friendship.

3. Seek to understand and respect your neighbor's values and beliefs. If we want to be respected and understood it is important that we strive to learn more about our neighbors. Many people on Mercer Island share the same values. For example, we value good, safe neighborhoods with strong schools and opportunities for growth. What about religious beliefs? Those can be part of our understanding process as well.

4. Find ways to serve your neighbor. Service lowers barriers, and is often the best way of extending ourselves. We can find many ways to serve our neighbors, whether it is by watering their lawn while they are out of town, cleaning their surroundings, running errands for them, or simply taking food to them during a difficult time.

We all share the community of Mercer Island. We moved here for specific reasons, which for the most part, are common among us. Gordon B. Hinckley, the president of the church I represent, outlined a model that I believe would help us unite as a community: ``Let us be good citizens of the nations in which we live. Let us be good neighbors in our communities. Let us acknowledge the diversity of our society, recognizing the good in all people. We need not make any surrender of our theology, but we can set aside any element of suspicion, of provincialism, of parochialism.''

While we have unique views, values, and beliefs, why don't we strive to extend ourselves and work a little harder to be a good neighbor? To those who are graduating, and to the rest of us, why don't we step up and respond to the challenge Mister Rogers posed for us in one of his more famous tunes, ``Won't You Be My Neighbor?'' May we all commit to extending ourselves a bit more this summer and ``Be a good neighbor.''

Stewart Vassau is bishop of the Mercer Island Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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