We All Get to the Peak Together

“We all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” These words were a defining moment in the acclaimed movie, Hidden Figures, which has been nominated for Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go as soon as you can.

Hidden Figures is the adaption of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by the same name. The movie is based on the true story of three African-American women mathematicians who were employed by NASA during the race between the United States and Russia to send a man into space. On April 12, 1961, Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to travel in space, thus putting the US behind.

The first American astronauts were all white men, as were the members of the elite Space Task Force. However, they were also supported by a group of black women who served as human computers, doing math computations by hand in the West Area Computers Division of the Langley Research Center in Virginia. These “hidden figures” were segregated from all of the white employees in a separate building.

The movie focuses on three women: Mary Jackson, who was NASA’s first African-American female aerospace engineer; Dorothy Vaughan, an early pioneer in computer processing and NASA’s first African-American manager; and Katherine Johnson, an expert in analytical geometry who was promoted to a position as the only woman in the Space Task Group.

It was Katherine Johnson who calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American to do a sub-orbital Mercury-Redstone flight on May 5, 1961. When John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth aboard Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962, Glenn requested that Johnson personally recheck the computer calculations before his flight. In 2015, President Obama presented her with the National Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

You need to see Hidden Figures because this movie provides wisdom for the most important issues facing our world today.

  • God calls each one of us to lead by encouraging others to develop their gifts in order to make a difference.

The movie opens with a scene where Katherine Johnson’s parents realize that their youngest of four children was a math prodigy. At a time when public schooling normally stopped at eighth grade for African-Americans, Katherine’s parents drove her 120 miles away so she could go to high school. She graduated from high school at age 14 and attended West Virginia State College, a historically black college. Katherine graduated from college at age 18, having taken every math course available.

Who knows what Katherine’s life would been like had her gifts not been nurtured? Who are you helping to make full use of their God-given potential, especially those who might not have the same opportunities as others?

  • Sometimes it takes a “majority” person to recognize, admit, and move beyond their own prejudices by opening the door for the hidden figures of the marginalized to reach their full potential.

After Katherine’s gifts are recognized at NASA, she is promoted to the Space Task Group. NASA chief, Al Harrison, a semi-fictional character taken from personality traits of three NASA past chiefs, discovers during a critical moment that Katherine is not at her desk. When Katherine finally returns and Harrison expresses anger at her periodic disappearances, she says, “There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the colored enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.” Harrison proceeds to tear down the COLORED WOMEN bathroom sign and then says, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.”

Who needs you to advocate for them?

 

  • God hopes that we will see each person in this world as a child of God and not as a thing or a number or a loser.

Mary Jackson is determined to go back to school and get a degree in engineering, but there are no places nearby that allow African-Americans to enroll. Mary goes to a judge and asks for permission to attend a whites-only school. “I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can’t do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can’t change the color of my skin. So I have no choice, but to be the first, which I can’t do without you, sir. Your honor, out of all the cases you gon hear today, which one is gon matter hundred years from now? Which one is gon make you the first?”

We go first by having the courage to do the right thing.

  • God is delighted when we believe in our own belovedness and tap into our inner strength to speak out against injustice wherever it is present.

Dorothy Vaughan has supervisory responsibilities in the West Area Computers Division,  but there is never formal recognition of her skills or a raise in salary by her white supervisor. But Dorothy knows that she has gifts, so she takes it upon herself to keep learning. She goes to the library and teaches herself to be an expert on FORTRAN, a programming language necessary for transition to computers. Eventually, Vaughan is promoted and brings thirty of her women to the new department.

Who do you know who needs to be reminded of their belovedness?

  • Our country and our world will flourish when we put our energy into working together for peace and prosperity for all, rather than just for some.

When Al Harrison finally addresses the inequality of Katherine Johnson’s treatment in the Space Task Team, he says, “We all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” As 7.4 billion human beings living in one world, we are all in this together, so it’s time to start caring for one another. As 322 million Americans in the United States, it’s time that we begin working together to create a future of hope for every person. As 12 million plus United Methodists around the world, it’s time that we resolve to model what it means to be the body of Christ by honoring and celebrating our differences so that all may participate in the reign of God.

There is a scene in the movie where John Glenn meets all of the NASA workers who are preparing feverishly for his historic flight. Glenn’s handlers are eager for him to move on, but he insists on greeting and shaking hands with the hidden figures, all of the African-American women in the West Area Computers Division.

On the day of Glenn’s flight, Johnson has been moved to the Research Department.

However, when a problem arises with computer calculations for the flight, Glenn asks specifically that Katherine do the calculations by hand because he knows how skilled she is. Johnson provides the necessary information, and the flight is a success.

Who are the hidden figures in your life? Who are the hidden figures in your community? Who are the hidden figures in our country and world? What greatness is hidden inside of you? How is God calling The United Methodist Church to reach out and engage the hidden figures of our world with the grace and hope of Jesus Christ?

We all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

No “I” in Team

“Mom, is it bad to not like working in teams?” my daughter asked in middle school. “It seems that whatever team I am on, I end up being the leader in order to get the project done on time. Plus, I usually do all the work! The other team members either procrastinate, dominate, or irritate everyone else by their bad attitude. The worst part is, my grade is dependent on them!”

There’s no “I” in team. It’s the one slogan I remember from my participation in team sports growing up. Whether it was playing field hockey, basketball, softball, or volleyball, my coaches always emphasized that everyone has their unique role to play on the team. I also came to believe that a team where every player contributes will be more successful than a team with one superstar who dominates.

Team work did not play an important role in my academic development, however.

Homework and projects were usually solitary, and success rested entirely on my own initiative and work habits. It was only in my children’s generation that working in teams became an essential part of public school education.

In today’s world, the ability to work well with others is necessary for success in virtually every profession, including the church.

  • Through the synergy of working in teams, the sum is greater than the individual parts.
  • Teamwork draws out and makes the best use of the unique gifts of each member.
  • By engaging multiple disciplines, teams include different perspectives and can cut through departmental insularity.
  • Teamwork develops camaraderie, empowers participation from all, demonstrates equity, and eliminates competition for “who gets the credit.”
  • Cultivating and managing effective teamwork is not only a skill, it is an essential art for all leaders, including clergy and lay leaders in congregations.

A defining experience in my own professional development in ministry occurred when I was a young pastor serving a large downtown church with many staff. One staff member was in the habit of working at odd hours of the day and night. There were some legitimate reasons for Joe to have flexibility, and I wanted to be sensitive to that need.

Unfortunately, the unpredictability of Joe’s schedule and his unwillingness to communicate when he was going to be working created disruption and affected the ability of other staff to get their own work done. I was patient and kept trying to show grace and understanding toward Joe until one day two staff members sat me down. They said, “Laurie, we need to talk. We know that you are sensitive to this person’s family life and needs and want him to succeed. But it’s not working for the rest of us. We can’t do our job well when we can’t count on Joe.

“There is such a thing as being too gracious. We think Joe is manipulating your compassion for his own benefit. He doesn’t seem to want to be part of our team. Furthermore, he needs to be available to the rest of us by working consistent hours, and you’re the one who has to share that hard message.” It was a wake-up call for me. Joe and I had a heart-to-heart talk, he eventually resigned, and I received a valuable lesson about teamwork.

I also learned about the importance of hiring the right people who fit the cultural and professional expectations of wherever I am serving. Patrick Lencioni’s 2016 best-selling book, The Ideal Team Player; How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues, has been immensely helpful in understanding how to create outstanding work teams.

The thesis of Lencioni’s book is that the three most critical virtues of an ideal team player are humility, hunger, and smarts. Why call them virtues rather than characteristics? Because virtues imply integrity and principles. In addition, virtues are not necessarily innate and can be learned if one is motivated.

The first and most important virtue is humility. A humble employee is more concerned with the success of the team than being singled out for individual achievement. At the same time, humble team players are not afraid to honestly acknowledge the skills and talents that they bring to the team, though never in a proud or boastful fashion. People who lack humility in a significant way and demand a disproportionate amount of attention are dangerous for a team.

The second virtue is hunger. Ideal team players are single-mindedly committed to their work and do whatever it takes. They are self-motivated, disciplined, desire to work hard, and know how to get things done. At the same time, they keep balance in their lives and know when to “give it a rest” in order to preserve their mental and physical health.

The third virtue is smarts. This virtue may seem deceptive at first because the smarts necessary to be an ideal team player are not necessarily professional, technical, or intellectual smarts. Smart team players are emotionally intelligent and know how to relate well to all people. They are self-aware, understand the dynamics of human interaction, rely on intuition, and use good judgment in their words and actions.

The key to being an ideal team player is the combination of all three virtues. Significantly lacking in humility, hunger, or smarts will hold the entire team back. Without humility, the team will become all about “them.” Without hunger, the team will be hamstrung by someone who is not self-motivated and is only invested in the bare minimum to get by. And without smarts, the team can become derailed by members who have limited social awareness and are clueless about how the insensitivity of their words and actions affects others. Teams that display all three virtues are better able to identify and address dysfunctional behavior.

Local churches are filled with teams. Whether we call them committees, commissions, or task forces, churches are most effective in their ministry and outreach when the members of each team demonstrate humility, hunger, and smarts. Of course, there is an added dimension for any faith-based team. That is a deep desire to be open to the movement of God in their own lives and a commitment to the mission, vision, and core values of the congregation of which they are a part.

How can you build better teams in your church?

  • Look for leaders who have a deep commitment to Christ, demonstrate humility, hunger, and smarts, and believe that there is no “I” in team.
  • Praise team members who contribute effectively, and gently but firmly call out those demonstrate bad behavior.
  • Assess current staff and lay leaders and develop/coach those who are lacking in one of the virtues.
  • Hire new staff with an eye for humility, hunger, and smarts.

Lencioni’s “Final Thought” at the end of his book says it all. He claims that humility is the greatest of the virtues and writes, “The most compelling example of humility in the history of humankind can be found in Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. He attracted people of all kinds when he walked the earth, and continues to do so today, providing an example of humility that is as powerful as it is countercultural.” The ideal team player.

 

The Conscience of our Country

It was a strange coincidence. The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, took place the same week as the inauguration of President Donald Trump. In preparation for the meeting, Oxfam always publishes a report on the state of world poverty. Oxfam is an international confederation of 19 charitable organizations working together with partners in 90 countries for the alleviation of global poverty.

According to Oxfam’s January 15, 2017, report, eight men own the same amount of wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, leads the way with a net worth of $75 billion. At the same time, according to CBS News, seven of President Trump’s cabinet nominations are worth a combined $11 billion, admittedly much more modest than the eight richest men but wealthier than any other cabinet in America history.

The Oxfam statistics take my breath away. The richest people are accumulating wealth so quickly that the world could have its first trillionaire in just 25 years. Imagine spending one million dollars every day for 2,738 years. That’s a trillion dollars. The gross inequity of wealth affects people the world over.

  • In the US, 1 percent of the people control 40 percent of the wealth.
  • Between 1988 and 2011, the incomes of the poorest 10 percent of people in the world increased by just $65 per person, while the incomes of the richest 1 percent grew by $11,800 per person: 182 times as much.
  • Women are often relegated to low-paying jobs, experience discrimination and are usually at the bottom of the pile. If current trends continue, it will take 170 years for women to be paid the same as men.

 

Oxfam interviewed women in a garment factory in Vietnam who work twelve hours a day, six days a week. They earn $1 an hour producing clothing for some of the biggest fashion brands whose CEOs are among the wealthiest in the world.

  • Poor countries lose at least $100 billion every year through corporate tax dodging by the rich. This money could provide an education for the 124 million children who aren’t in school and fund preventive health care that could save the lives of six million children every year.
  • Oxfam’s calculations are based on data from Swiss bank Credit Suisse and

According to Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, “It is obscene for so much wealth to be held in the hands of so few when one in ten people survive on less than $2 a day. Inequality is trapping hundreds of millions in poverty. It is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy.”

Donald Trump is now our 45th President of the United States. The well-being of our country, as well as the entire world, is invested in his leadership. As I listened to President Trump’s inaugural speech on Friday, I was convinced more than ever that we are all in this together. Unless you and I also take up the mantle of leadership by committing ourselves to creating a world where every person’s voice can be heard and can reach their full potential, we cannot change the world.

In the divided country in which we live, what role can and must the church play? We are not without hope. These words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 sermon Strength to Love come to mind. “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men (and women) everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will.”

 

People of faith are the conscience of our country. The United Methodist Church has a word to say to the United States, for we take our marching orders from the words and witness of Jesus and express them in our 2016 Book of Discipline.

  • From Our Doctrinal Heritage, “Scriptural holiness always entails more than personal piety; love of God is always linked with love of neighbor, a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world.”
  • From our Social Principles, “Every person has a right to a job at a living wage.” (163.C)
  • And, “In spite of general affluence in the industrialized nations, the majority of persons in the world live in poverty. In order to provide basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and other necessities, ways must be found to share more equitably the resources of the world…. As a church we are called to support the poor and challenge the rich.” (163.E)

What can people of faith do to be the conscience of the state? We must encourage our government to eliminate the loopholes that allow the very wealthy to get away with paying very little taxes. We need to advocate for raising the minimum wage so that working families make a living wage. We need to resist discrimination of any kind and insist on a social safety net that is available for everyone. We must demand affordable and quality health care and education for all people.

 

We can advocate through letters, phone calls, and our presence. A half million people participated in the Women’s March on Washington this past Saturday as well as millions in Sister marches around the world. The protesters were the conscience of the state, raising awareness of women’s rights and other civil rights that they hope will not be taken from them.

In the Iowa Annual Conference, we have a Legislative Advocacy Team. The two houses of the Iowa legislature meet from January through April, during which members of the Advocacy Team are present every single day. For the past 30 years, United Methodists in Iowa have advocated for social issues that are addressed in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline. As official lobbyists, they have voice in the legislative subcommittees and can testify.

On February 7, we are sponsoring a Legislative Advocacy Day in Des Moines where United Methodists from around Iowa can become informed and trained around issues that will be up for vote in the legislature as well as observe our state government in action. Our UM Advocacy Team is focusing this year on four priority issues: The Environment, Mental Health, Poverty, and Gun Violence. We are the conscience of the legislature.

In his inaugural speech, President Trump said, “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.”

I understand President Trump’s sentiments, yet the church is called to be the conscience, guide, and critic of the state whenever we turn in on ourselves or fail to serve the very least in our midst. Our country was founded on ideals that include welcoming all to our shores, moving beyond our borders to seek justice around the world, and ensuring fullness of life for each person on our planet. The United States was never destined to be self-serving and isolationist. Rather, as John Wesley proclaimed that the whole world was his parish, so the entire world is our country’s concern as well.

Dare we as United Methodists and all people of faith covenant to support President Trump and his administration by our prayers and encouragement as well as by serving as their conscience? Dare we share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny with people around the world and with creation itself? Dare we work for the day when our nation and world will look like God’s reign, where the poor will go first with the eight richest men bringing up the rear, those earning minimum wage will sit at the places of honor as well as have their wages increased, and those who are rejected because of their skin color, immigration status, or sexual orientation/gender identity are welcomed with open arms? Dare we move from praying, “God, make our country great again; America first!” to “God, use us as your servants to make every corner of our world safe and whole again”?

O God, lead us into the future with humility, grace, and hope. Amen.