By: Christa Meland
River Hills UMC has connected with its community in a variety of ways in recent years—from organizing a get-together with a local mosque to hosting an “undie Sunday” pancake breakfast to collect undergarments for homeless neighbors. But last month, church members decided to try something entirely different: They invited their neighbors to the movies.
On Nov. 20, the Burnsville church bought out a local movie theater and gave members of its community free tickets to “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” two days before its official release. The movie, featuring Tom Hanks as late television personality and Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers, is a story of kindness and forgiveness.
The church distributed flyers in its neighborhood and encouraged its members to invite their own neighbors, making clear in the flyers that the tickets were being given without any strings attached: “No expectation that you come to our ‘house’ or that we’ll show up at yours. No surprise sermon or sales pitch. No catches. No gimmicks. We just want to invite you to the movies.”
“River Hills UMC wants to be a part of a beautiful day in our neighborhood,” said Rev. Robert Braudt. “What does that look like? In Fred Rogers’ words, ‘I don’t think anyone can grow unless he’s loved exactly as he is now, appreciated for what he is rather than what he will be.’ That is a grace-filled kind of love that I believe God is calling us to share.”
The church’s invitation was met with an overwhelmingly positive response. In fact, it gave out 201 tickets and the theater reached capacity.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod. In the movie, investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel is assigned to profile Rogers, whose empathy, kindness, and decency soon chips away at Vogel’s jaded outlook on life and forces him to reconcile with his painful past.
Reflecting on the movie-screening event, Braudt said he felt the church accomplished more than he anticipated. Aside from the strong attendance, it got members talking to their friends and neighbors about the great thing their church was doing; it was a safe and rewarding way for them to connect with people about their family of faith. It also got neighbors talking with neighbors about the church.
“We successfully shared with our neighborhood that we want to be more than the church on the corner [and serve] as an active and engaged part of the neighborhood,” said Braudt.
The church was also part of sharing an inspiring message in a way that was accessible to everyone, said Braudt, noting that the laughter and tears that filled the theater indicated the extent to which it resonated with people.
Interestingly, The United Methodist Church also has a connection to “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” on a denominational level. Sony Pictures invited agency Discipleship Ministries to produce a faith-based study guide to accompany the movie. The free guide is designed to help groups learn to process feelings, understand forgiveness, talk about hard things, seek reconciliation, and practice positive spiritual discipline.
At a time when our country and world are experiencing unprecedented division, it’s all the more important to look for ways to create beautiful days in our respective neighborhoods, which is exactly what taking people to the movies was all about, said Braudt.
“It’s a tough time to be the church,” he reflected. “So many things threaten to derail our best intentions. We need to choose new ways to show what it means to be the church . . . It felt good to be the church, to be a part of a community, a neighborhood, that stands together for more than the things that divide us.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church