“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.