In years that don’t include a deadly viral pandemic, I usually offer words of encouragement to church folks about how to get along with their families on Thanksgiving. This year many people are having Thanksgiving apart from loved ones due to COVID-19, but maybe this distance offers us an opportunity. Since we have some space this year away from our family members with whom we have strained relationships, perhaps we could reassess what family means and offer grace to one another.
I had an insight about family get-togethers from, of all places, reading a review of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air Reunion Special which is airing now on HBO Max. The sit-com starring Will Smith aired in the years 1990-1996. If you don’t know the show, Fresh Prince centers on the character “Will Smith,” played by the actor of the same name, a streetwise Black teenager from a rough part of Philadelphia. In order to keep him out of trouble, Will’s mom sends him to live with extended family who are rich and live in Bel Air, CA. I was in college and seminary during those years and not watching a lot of TV, so I only caught the show in syndication now and then. Yet, I read a review about the cast reunion which is airing now after 24 years, because there was controversy!
During season 3 of the show, conflict arose between the star Will Smith and Janet Hubert, who played Will’s Aunt Viv. Hubert feels she was forced out of the show by Smith and replaced by another actor. When news broke a reunion special was planned, fans expected that “the original Aunt Viv” would not be a part of it. This expectation is well-founded, because reunion specials have conventional rules, as reviewer Aisha Tyler at NPR writes:
The unspoken rules of gathering the cast of a beloved TV show for a reunion special are familiar: Gin up the nostalgia and warm, fuzzy feels. Montages and clip reels highlight the memorable onscreen moments from years past, as everyone jovially reminisces about the time spent playing and creating together on set. If a key member is absent because of behind-the-scenes drama or personal setbacks, try to avoid acknowledging they were ever a part of the show in the first place, and/or gloss over any tensions that might spoil the lovefest. Put on a happy face.
The happy faces were on for 45 minutes of the special, but in the final 15 minutes, things became real. “Aunt Viv #1” showed up to sit down with Will Smith and talk about their past conflict. Suddenly things moved from the unrealistic world of a sit-com family into the real-world families we all live in.
The reviewer Aisha Tyler wrote this summary which really got me thinking about our real-life families:
For those few moments, funnily enough, the special feels like an actual family reunion with real stakes, as the estranged relatives awkwardly and uncomfortably confront one another, let it all out, and, finally and cathartically, reach reconciliation.
As a child who grew up watching reruns of sit-coms, I still secretly wish that all my family’s problems could be resolved in 22 minutes. Yet, real-life family conflicts rarely get resolved so quickly, if ever. More likely, family members nurse long grudges, remember slights from years past and harbor secret pains, none of which ever gets talked about. Families in real life are not like a warm fuzzy smile-fest of a reunion special but rather like those last 15 minutes of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air Reunion Special—raw, awkward and painful.
As a minister who is privy to the stories of lots of families (which I keep confidential), I can assure you that if you feel your family is dysfunctional then you are in good company. Trust me on this. Every family has its secret pain. But maybe this year as we are apart from our family members whom we love but resent we can meditate on the possibilities of reconciliation.
Christians are called to the work of reconciliation and peacemaking, but often the most difficult places to do such work is in one’s own family. What would it look like for you to honestly express feelings and work toward reconciliation with that sibling, parent, or cousin with whom you have issues? Could you offer grace and forgiveness while accepting responsibility for your own hurtful actions and words? Could you do so even if your family member didn’t offer the same in return? Is such a thing possible?
Ponder and pray about these things seriously enough, and you might find yourself picking up the phone and calling that loved one and having a difficult but life changing conversation. Sometimes such “re-unions” happen in real life and not only in sit-coms.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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