I remember the first time I watched Community. A college buddy was watching it as it aired on NBC, and he invited me to watch an episode. I’ll be honest. I didn’t really understand why he liked the show. It all seemed so other from my experience as an engineering student at a well-known state university. In my pride, I wondered what a sitcom about a community college study group had to say to me. I just couldn’t connect with the characters, mostly because I thought I was better than them.
Fast forward a decade and my wife and I just finished our binge of the series on Netflix. In those six seasons, we followed the vastly different stories of each featured member of the Greendale Community College campus. What started as the story of seven students coming together for a fake study group that one student made up in order to hit on another student became the story of a community. As writer Kevin Ireland put it in LTN’s Article 12 Bingeable Shows that Restore our Faith in Humanity, “They start the show as defensive folks performing who they think they should be, and at the end, they are folks who have embraced their inner child, accepted their shadow-selves, and are better for it.”His unrelenting acceptance of people as they are, accepting without judgment, challenges me to become a better Christian, father, husband, teacher, and human being.
Kevin’s summary of the show would describe my life over the last decade. Since 2009, I have wrestled with a lot of my own shortcomings and pride. I have learned to let down my defenses and to embrace my inner child. I would venture to say that I am better for it, though I admit that I am in no way constant or perfect with regard to this change. But that’s the beauty of television shows like Community. Throughout the course of the show, characters might grow as the result of a lesson in one episode only to backtrack some a few episodes later. They are human, as am I. This true reflection of the human condition made it hard for college-age Jon to connect with the characters, and I am glad that I was able to connect to the show now.
You see, in my college days, I was very much trying to fit in with a certain group of people who dictated what was right, good, and acceptable for my season of life. I wore different masks from situation to situation, trying to put on the best face that I thought the people around me wanted to see. In a weird sense, I was the Dean—constantly dressing up to suit the situation, but I was more like a weird amalgamation of Annie’s perfectionism and Shirley’s religiosity. I couldn’t interface with the idea of being true to my nerdy self. Thus, I couldn’t handle characters like Troy and Abed becoming so sure of themselves in their weird, nerdy shenanigans. Like these characters, I needed time to grow and change, and I hope someday to become more like Abed.
Abed’s character shows me how to be a better person. His unrelenting acceptance of people as they are, accepting without judgment, challenges me to become a better Christian, father, husband, teacher, and human being. I love that Community puts front and center a character who others might have added to the background as their token representation for neurodiversity. In this, I am challenged to consider those that others might have overlooked and consider them as worthy of my love and affection, not because they might benefit me but because they deserve my Abed-like acceptance, which I would argue is Christ-like acceptance.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus comes into contact with people that the religious leaders of the day would’ve dismissed as unclean sinners, unworthy of their attention. When these religious leaders confront Jesus for this in Matthew 9:10-13, Jesus responds by saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” College-age me was all about the modern-day sacrifices prescribed by cultural Christianity and not about the mercy. As such, I could not handle a show that demanded I be merciful to the characters. Looking back, I can see just how far I’ve come from that person, and I hope to continue growing in mercy as I interact with people I might first want to judge.