Finding Jesus is a big moment in any person’s life. Millions have experienced this powerful spiritual moment, but your evening television program probably has not. But on one episode of the ‘90s TGIF hit Family Matters, the lovably irksome Steve Q. Urkel bucks tradition, finds faith in the Lord, and puts a little extra meaning in “Thank God It’s Friday.”
In the show’s 13th episode of season three (“Choir Trouble” – originally aired December 20, 1991), the Winslows ready themselves for church. In a relatable scene, patriarch Carl (Reginald VelJohnson) hollers from downstairs that they are going to be late while the rest of the family goes through a routine of changing and re-changing outfits. Sitting ready by the door, grandma Estelle (Rosetta LeNoire) greets their quirky neighbor Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) who happens to stop by. “Every Sunday I watch you Winslows put-put off to church in your Gremlin, and I wish I could tag along,” he tells her. He laments that his parents’ routine of completing the New York Times crossword (in ink) and taking a dip in a sensory deprivation chamber is not enough, and Estelle invites him to join them at church, much to the surprise of the family.
At church, Steve humorously struggles to find just the right time to holler “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” while the choir sings that “God has been good to me.” The preacher then shares that their former choir director has left and that the zealous Aunt Rachel would be taking over. The former director has gone to sing backup for ZZ Top, he announces.
It is Steve’s own announcement to the church, though, and not the escapades of a choir director that really stands out in the episode. Steve’s speech in full makes clear the heart of the episode:
“Pastor Peeble; regular people – My name is Steven Q. Urkel. Now before today, I felt like there was something missing in my life. Now I know it seems like I’ve got everything going for me: intelligence, killer good looks, and a wonderful woman who’s wild about me. [As he puts his hand on Laura’s shoulder, she reminds him he is “Touching.” to which he apologizes “Sorry.”] But today I’ve learned that those things were merely foolish pride. Vain attempts to cover the emptiness in my soul. Not unlike the way the good pastor here tries to cover the baldness of his head with that mail-order rug. [“It’s about time somebody pointed that out,” Estelle says.] I was looking for love, caring and joy. Well, this place is chock-full of those things! So, I’m happy to say that a few minutes ago, I opened my heart and invited the Lord in. [“A-a-a-amen, A-a-a-amen!” the choir sings before cutting to choir practice a few days later.]”
While one might pass over this as a merely quaint moment from the squeaky Urkel, focusing instead on the drama of Rachel as director, Steve’s proclamation is actually one of the most radical spiritual moments you will find across all of 1990s sitcom programming.
According to a study by university researchers Skill, Robinson, Lyons, and Larson, only 5.6% of television characters had an identifiable religious affiliation in that era. Characters simply did not share their religious beliefs, let alone whole-heartedly convert with an explicit religious testimony in the actual episode itself. (They still don’t)
After Steve’s announcement, the focus of the episode shifts to the trouble that Rachel causes in her somewhat overbearing efforts to make Gospel Sunday perfect, even asking the newly-converted Steve to turn in his hymnal for being way off-key. The choir (performed by the First A.M.E. Church Choir with some help from the show’s voice-gifted cast) belts out “Oh Happy Day” and an over-practiced “Go Tell it on the Mountain” in the episode before Rachel finally comes around with Rachel welcoming Steve back and apologizing to the choir.
Steve and Estelle get one more chance, though, to revisit the sincerity of the boy’s conversion in a quick conversation over a game of checkers, reminding viewers of the sincerity of his belief. Letting Estelle know that his parents were unhappy with his newfound religion, Steve shared that he had countered his father’s philosophical position on scientific certainty vs. religion. “Stop this church nonsense and rejoin your mother and me in the sensory depravation tanks,” his father had said to him. “Tanks, but no tanks,” Steve reports retorting. He continues to explain to Estelle:
“My father demanded to know how with my scientific training I could believe in God. After all, I can’t touch, see, or feel Him. But I pointed out that I can’t touch, see, or feel an atom either, but I believe it exists.”
“You’re right!” Estelle insists. “That’s what we call faith.”
That’s what we call a remarkable moment for ABC’s former TGIF lineup.
“Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee,” the cast sings at the salvaged Gospel Sunday, fully wrapping up in typical sitcom form the troubles of the day. ABC’s new TGIT has had its own few moments of spiritual bravery, each mostly anomalies for their given evenings. Perhaps such moments of bold character identity owe a little something to their TGIF older cousin.
But what do you think? Does TGIF bring back good memories for you? Are there other statements of faith that you remember seeing? Sound off in the COMMENTS below. And don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE above and FOLLOW over on Twitter!
Steve Urkel found God? I hadn’t noticed.