In the blockbuster movie, Hidden Figures, a little known story is told about a group of African-American women who helped NASA accomplish space travel. Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the film focuses on three real-life African-American female pioneers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were part of NASA's team of human "computers." This was a group made up of mostly women who calculated by hand the complex equations that allowed space heroes like Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, and John Glenn to travel safely to space. Through sheer tenacity, force of will, and intellect, they ensured their stamp on American history—even if their story has remained obscured from public view.
In June 1941, with war raging in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt needed to ensure the growth of the federal workforce. He issued an Executive Order which banned "discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin" (notice that gender is not included). Six months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the throes of war, NASA and Langley began recruiting African-American women with college degrees to work as human computers. As you might assume, African-American computers were paid less than their white counterparts and relegated to the segregated west section of the Langley campus, where they had to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. [i]
In the film, Hidden Figures, human computer Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, was shown running back to the west campus several times a day just to use the rest room; the colored rest room; 45 minutes round trip. Of course her boss, Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, was growing more and more frustrated with this woman who, hired to help with John Glenn’s trajectory, kept disappearing for long periods of time.
One rainy day, Mr. Harrison confronted a soaking wet and frustrated Ms. Johnson saying, ‘Where are you disappearing to? Where do you go all the time? I need you here!’ And her loud and rebellious response (you’ve gotta watch the film) caused Mr. Harrison stop what he was doing, go over to the west campus with an iron crow bar, and proceed to batter down the “Colored restroom” signs in front of all the employees. When the sign came crashing to floor Harrison said to all present, ‘There won’t be separate bathrooms anymore. Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.’
This moment in the movie stood out to me as much as any other meaningful and moving scene, of which there were many. You see, the Jim Crow culture of separate but equal, caused a problem for everyone. This stands as a good example of when one person, or group of people are treated differently or even oppressed, we are all affected. We all pay a price. The work that NASA was doing, and does, put lives at stake. Especially early on during the so-called space race when so much was unknown and unprecedented. The work Katherine Johnson was doing for these astronauts was so vital to their safety and protection of their lives. Her main job leading up to and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the trajectory calculations. Having her continually leave the control room to use a restroom a half mile away and be absent from crucial duties simply because of the color of her skin was ridiculous, irresponsible, and detrimental to the mission. It is documented and included in the movie, John Glenn himself requesting that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories. He told the head engineer, “Get the girl to check the numbers... If she says the numbers are good... I'm ready to go." You need that woman in the room!
The scripture readings for today are completely wrapped up in our worth. God declares that you and I have worth. That those who differ from us have worth. St. Paul reminds us that we are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in us. These are beautiful and remarkable words; ones that tell us that we are of invaluable worth, but they are also words that demand something from us. If we are a holy people; God’s temple, then we are only so if we love our neighbors as ourselves. If we are a holy people; God’s temple, then we are only so if we not only forgive, but love our enemies.
Jesus teaches unprecedented mercy and forgiveness: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you…” These are not instructions that undergird or encourage individualism, but rather instructions for those who live in a godly community; a temple that is holy and glorifies God.
Jesus then culminates this part of his teaching, which goes on for the next couple of chapters, by telling his disciples, and as always, the reader and hearer of this message, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now, before you make up your mind that this is impossible and you shut your ears to the instruction of being as perfect as God, there is some good news here. It doesn’t let us off the hook, but a deeper understanding of this teaching is quite wonderful.
Let’s come back to the story of Katherine Johnson and her mathematics for a workable trajectory for John Glenn’s travel in orbit. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word we translate “perfect” is actually the Greek word telos and implies less a moral perfection than it does reaching one’s intended outcome. For example, the telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches.[ii] The telos of NASA’s mission in 1962 was to bring John Glenn and his crew back to Earth safely. Telos, could very well be used synonymously with trajectory.
If our trajectory is realizing the kingdom of God, which Jesus describes at the onset of this fifth chapter of Matthew with the Sermon on the Mount, then the equations or formulas we must follow include loving our neighbors as well as our enemies; welcoming those who are not our family and friends; to go the extra mile for another; to pray for those who wish ill of us. These are examples of the steps we must take to meet our destination; to meet our goal, which is the Kingdom.
Katherine Johnson wrote these elaborate equations on a huge chalkboard in that NASA control room. Our huge chalkboard must include endless equations or examples of acts of love. Striving for the Kingdom, practicing acts of love and mercy and peace are what Jesus is telling us. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, get on the trajectory that leads you to love and charitable thoughts of others. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says in many of his great sermons, “If it ain’t got nothing to do with love, then it ain’t got nothing to do with God.” And he’s right. If it ain’t got nothing to do with love it doesn’t belong on our road map.
From the collect for 7 Epiphany, Let us pray.
O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue. In Christ’s Name. Amen.