SUGAR LAND, Texas (BP) -- "Wherever Mister Rogers is, so is sanctuary," was TV Guide's take on the iconic good neighbor who explained difficult situations to children for 30 years on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
Mister Rogers has been at Sugar Creek Baptist Church in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land for weeks now. He's teaching young children how important it is to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Well, at least that's the character Children's Pastor Jeff Land has been portraying on video messages he's produced for Creek Kids during the pandemic.
"I've always loved Mister Rogers, and so I love the way he talks to kids, because he talks to kids about things that are harder for them to understand," Land said. "I just love his personality."
Sugar Creek's children's planning team initiated the video series in June as one of many online Creek Kids resources to help children continue to thrive during the pandemic.
"We decided to do one about masks because they are definitely becoming a part of who we are," Land said. "As Americans, we're not used to having to wear masks. … And so we wanted to do something to help kids understand 'You know, they're not scary, and we really wear them to help people.'"
When onsite worship resumes at Sugar Creek, Land said, children in kindergarten and beyond will be "required" to wear masks. Children in pre-school and below will be "encouraged" to wear them.
According to Parents.com, the average 5-year-old has an attention span ranging from 10 to 25 minutes, and children may stay more focused on a project if it's fun and creative.
How can anyone get children that young to wear masks for any extended period of time?
"It's OK if you don't like wearing a mask; it really is," Land tells children on a set resembling the "Mister Rogers" set, complete with a jingle, cardigan, comfy shoes and picture cards. "But we have to wear masks when we're asked to. Can you do that for me? Can you help me? Can you wear your mask when you're asked to, and know that it's OK? … We can be happy even when we're wearing masks.
"I'm going to wear my mask because I love you, and God loves you, and I want you to know that you are special."
The Mister Rogers series includes scripture to let children know God has a plan for their lives. Installments include talks on illness and the hurricanes that can be frequent in Texas. Land, who releases a new video every couple of weeks, is preparing one on race relations.
Initially, Creek Kids was going to forego masks, but ministry leaders changed their minds after consulting parents and learning, according to Land, "A lot of our families really wanted us to require masks." Given the rapid spread of the virus in Houston, Gov. Greg Abbott's mask mandate, and the local school system's intention to require masks when onsite school resumes, the church decided to make it a priority.
"It's biblical to support what your government says," Land said. "We try to do that and show respect for the people who are making decisions in our city in our government."
Sunday mornings before COVID-19, Creek Kids attendance averaged between 1,200 and 1,500 children from birth through age 5 at the church's two campuses combined. Four full-time staff, 12 part-time staff and a team of 300-400 weekly volunteers serve the children. The Southern Baptist Convention’s inaugural Children's Ministry Day is July 19 on the SBC calendar, added as a day to remind children of their worth in Jesus, encourage evangelism among youth, and recognize children’s ministry workers and volunteers.
Creek Kids will keep kids active, provide projects that children can do individually, change activities frequently, and frequently remind children to wear their masks.
The children's ministry has been solely online since the shutdown began, but the church saw children wearing masks during the brief period that onsite worship resumed before the current shutdown.
"No doubt, it's going to be hard to keep kids wearing a mask for a full hour," Land said. "But we've seen it, and we've seen it in our services where kids have done it. And we believe it can happen."
Land encourages churches to do what feels right for the individual church, and to also consider the "least of these" when deciding whether children will be required to wear masks at church.
"And that's a biblical thing," he said, "that whatever you do unto the least of these, you did unto Me."
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor.