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Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Barbara Howard is an inimitable presence in Abbott Elementary. From the moment she appears in the Pilot to the Season 2 finale, she’s a breath of fresh in every area. And as this show continues to improve, surely the character will too. There are countless superlative traits to focus on when it comes to Barbara, which should come in the form of an extensive deep dive, but today, it’s vital to highlight that she’s the best representation of Christianity when the real world is darker than it should be.
A person with faith should never be ashamed to praise their God publicly. Yet, sometimes, the actions and beliefs of extremists derail the foundation of religion and understandably taint how the public views them. As a Christian woman who loves Jesus Christ and all people, it’s especially beautiful for me to see an authentic display of faith in a woman who’s so profoundly loving. Barbara Howard is a shining example of fearfully and wonderfully made and a character whose heart is so massive that it makes her faith more believable.
Barbara Howard’s Empathy is Her Chosen Superpower
At the end of the day, no human has a place to judge another. And perhaps then, this article is a bit hypocritical on that front, but good judgment is okay, right? (I sure hope.) The truth is, no human being is perfect, and neither is Barbara Howard as a character. Still, those complexities, etched with her colossal empathy, prove that she wholeheartedly knows the Bible. She might be the most hilarious when she notes that she also sleeps with said Bible under her pillow, but it tracks when viewers openly see how loving she is toward everyone.
In 1 Corinthians 13:13, the Bible specifies, “And these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Nowhere in this verse does it specify that only a specific group of seemingly pure individuals deserve said love. The Bible doesn’t distinguish between saints and sinners, either, because Jesus himself doesn’t cast the first stone, proving that He is love. Nevertheless, Barbara Howard is also a representation of a human being, written with authenticity, and thus, even when she fumbles, she does the right thing by looking inward. Abbott Elementary Season 2, Episode 8, “Egg Drop,” is the perfect example to pull from because Barbara’s entire arc there is about what being a Christian should look like. After passing judgment on a parent’s appearance because she simply doesn’t understand, the episode’s overarching theme notes that the importance of human interactions isn’t about needing to understand—it’s about loving and respecting them, regardless.
There is a time and place for everything. There is also a proper age where legalities are in the equation. This is for people to decide on their own. Still, the essence of Christianity boils down to understanding that our agency is ours and God’s alone. Come judgment day; I atone for myself and my actions. How one person behaves is their business, not ours. And in this episode, through this specific arc, Barbara Howard’s apology shows that she understands this idea. She has the indispensable love in her heart to look at a human being who might behave differently than her and opt out of seeing them as inferior or less than.
In a time where it’s hard for minorities to feel safe among Christians, it’s imperative to remember that Jesus doesn’t discriminate. And while some Bible verses contradict themselves in various areas, the one detail consistently present throughout is the significance of love. It’s the one thing that matters more than anything. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Like in the book of Corinthians, Matthew 22:35-40 does not state if only your neighbor looks and behaves exactly like you do.
Abbott Elementary’s Barbara Howard doesn’t curse; she doesn’t do many things some of us Christians might do loosely, but her character proves that those things are secondary when we compare to remaining compassionate above all. She’s the type of teacher who’ll care for every student in her path with a warmth and empathy that’s so rare that they’ll carry her with them for the rest of their lives. She’s a Christian woman who adores her gay colleague without ever questioning his sexuality or loving him less than anyone else.
Jesus Christ is love—the entire foundation of Christianity stands on love, and as a woman of faith, Barbara Howard’s words and actions show how to be an example. She’s someone whose thoughts and prayers are not only welcomed but desirable. She not only puts action behind her love and prayers, but she threads them into her apologies as well. She grows daily as a complex human being, trying to do the best she can, even when she’s tested.
I’m never ashamed to say I’m a Christian or to vocalize how vital my personal relationship with Jesus is. Christ fan, above all, I always say. However, I find myself having to clarify all the forms of equality that I also stand hard for. I find myself having to clarify that I’m backing my thoughts and prayers with actions. And that’s something I’ll always do to contradict the unjust hatred that’s been spewed toward minorities fearing for their existence every single day. I’ll clarify it as long as I need to. Barbara Howard is the kind of safe space as a character that I hope to be as a person—to exude the same love and warmth that she does, even if she’s fictional. Those of us who are real people can learn a great deal from her.
Abbott Elementary writers crafting a character as raw and vulnerable with fears and immense heart is no small feat. It also takes an incredibly skilled actress to take the words on the page and breathe tremendous life into them—Sheryl Lee Ralph embodies this love beautifully, showing us with prodigious warmth how empathetic Barbara wholeheartedly is as a woman who understands the love of Christ. In short, if more Christians were like Barbara Howard, the world we’d love in could actually be brilliant.