Column – The city that smiles at its neighbors

Published 6:47 pm Friday, August 18, 2023

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“Light in a messenger’s eyes brings joy to the heart,
    and good news gives health to the bones.” — Proverbs 15:30

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” by Fred Rogers

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?”

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There’s a good chance this song, one of over 200 songs written and sung by Fred Rogers, is now in your head. I’m hoping that it made you smile. I like to smile. I even like to smile at random people I’ve never met. The best is when they smile back. 

I do this from Food Lion, to Sentara Obici Hospital, to our city parks, even at the DMV — can you believe that? Now, time for confession: I don’t always do it, but I try to be intentional and authentic about it as much as possible. Some may think I do this because I’m a pastor. That’s partially true, but most folks won’t know I’m a pastor when I’m in Crocs and an old T-shirt grabbing bananas, or beer, at Kroger. Perhaps my attempts are because I admire Mister Rogers so much. Perhaps I do it to be a good neighbor, as Jesus commands, and as Fred Rogers taught for decades. There are other reasons as well. 

If you were to consult scientific research, you would find that smiling is good for you. It’s good for others as well. Personally, I need all the help I can get for good health. 

As humans are quite amazing at adapting to a changing world, research has shown that many of us now process the smiley face emoji just like we do a smile from a human face. It releases all sorts of good chemicals in our brain. This helps to reduce stress, boost our mood, even fight depression and physical pain. 

The church I serve with as pastor recently installed a new sign. It was expensive. We are grateful for the gift someone left for this purpose. Yet, I worried for a bit about spending all this money on a sign. We want the sign to be more than just a place for advertisement of our activities. We want it to help our community and especially spread the Good News. So, on a regular basis, as you drive on Godwin Boulevard between Oakland and Chuckatuck, you will see a big ol’ smiley face. It’s meant just for you. 

Simply put, the more we smile, and the more we make others smile, our individual and communal health will actually improve. Sure, it won’t solve all our problems, but even a little momentary uptick in our general well-being is worth seeking. 

Give it a try. Smile more. Smile for no apparent reason. Smile because the person you are walking by is a child of God, just like you — no matter who they are. Smile because it improves your health. Smile because it builds communities, and strong communities have fewer problems. Smile because Mister Rogers sang for us all, “I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you, I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.” 

Smile because it’s a gift from God to be able to smile and to receive a smile. Be a messenger with light in your eyes and good news that goes to the bones. 

Maybe one day we will become known as “Suffolk — The City That Smiles.” Now that would be progress. 

The Rev. Jason Stump is pastor of Oakland Christian United Church of Christ in Suffolk. He can be reached at