Christianity

Wise men and wise women: "Hidden Figures" and Epiphany

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Across the Christian church today, a number of faithful believers will celebrate Epiphany.  But how many will consider the cultural similarities of this holy day to the stories featured in the national film release of Hidden Figures this weekend?

To believers in Jesus, one of the most powerful messages of Epiphany is the mercy and love demonstrated to all humanity through the revealing of the Son of God to the star-following, foreign-born wise men, who fell down and worshiped the Christ child upon finding Him.

Regardless of race, social status, or gender, God's grace is given to all who come to him in faith in Jesus--what Manhattan pastor Tim Keller refers to as "the only hope that matters."

Segue to another group of wise humans looking to the heavens--this time African-American women working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later known as NASA) in the 1950s and 60s--seeking equal treatment regardless of their race and gender.

Featured in Margot Lee Shetterly's excellent book Hidden Figures, the lives of Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson will be brought to audiences’ attention nationally in theaters today.

These women were a part of a larger group of female mathematicians—both black and white—who served the American government's WWII efforts in aeronautics and then later in the Cold War space race against the former Soviet Union.

Known as "computers," these math whizzes provided essential work in the development of air flight--military and commercial. The barriers they broke through in what had been a white, male-engineer-only world took incredible courage, humility, and perseverance.  

Seeking equal treatment in the workplace—whether it be achieving equal pay, the ability to advance into administrative roles, achieving the status of engineer, or even sitting in on strategy meetings—Vaughn, Jackson, and Johnson also faced the racial prejudices of the Jim Crow era as well—including segregated buses, bathrooms, and cafeterias to name a few.

Ms. Shetterly does a thoughtful job chronicling these challenges in a time where African-Americans wrestled with the irony of serving a country that was fighting for freedom in other lands while curtailing their own.

“Eighty percent of the world’s population is colored,” the NACA’s chief legal counsel Paul Dembling wrote in a 1956 file memo.  “In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country.”

Providentially, Vaughn, Jackson, and Johnson were educated and positioned to work in an environment during a time when African Americans (particularly females) had very few opportunities to escape their position in life. 

Consider Katherine Johnson.

Raised in West Virginia, Katherine’s teachers quickly recognized her God-given talents in mathematics. Graduating at age 14, Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State University.  Exhausting the college's math curriculum by her junior year, her Ivy League trained professor W. W. Schiefflin Claytor (only the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in math in 1933) had to create advanced courses to continue to challenge her.

Becoming a math teacher and wife, Johnson was later encouraged by her alma mater to be a part of integrating West Virginia University’s graduate school—becoming one of three African Americans to attend in the summer of 1940.  Her pregnancy with her first child would lead to the decision to stay home—forgoing graduate school—but her work was far from through.

Fast-forward 13 years to Katherine and her family’s move to Newport News.

Joining Carver Presbyterian Church and developing a strong network in the community, she would make her mark in the workforce with her job appointment to NACA as a “computer” in June 1953—breaking tremendous barriers from aeronautic innovations to gender and race roles. 

“For any number of reasons, concrete and ineffable, there was something about Katherine that made her as comfortable in the office as she was in the choir loft at Carver Presbyterian. She didn't close her eyes to the racism that existed; she knew just as well as any other black person the tax levied upon them because of their color.  But she didn't feel it in the same way.”

Although little known nationally for most of her life, Katherine played a vital role in the space program—even earning the respect of astronaut John Glenn, who famously asked her to confirm the IBM computers’ trajectory calculations before his historic orbiting of the Earth in 1962.

But what if the diverse team that was behind this American first had been recognized publicly—especially before the 135 million people who viewed Glenn's lift off on television?

Imagine the impact this could have had on race relations and women pursuing careers in science. 

In an era of racial hostility leading up to the explosive election year of 1968, which not only saw race riots but also the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., what if the work of men and women of different backgrounds and races had been heralded along with the astronauts (the 1968 Time Men of the Year) who flew Apollo 8 around the moon or a year later with the crew of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon?

This idea of hope that comes through unity—especially diverse teams of people working together—cannot be underestimated.  For who could have imagined the meeting of a poor Jewish couple and wealthy high-ranking foreigners to worship the King of kings being celebrated over 2000 years later?

And like the wise men remembered on Epiphany, thanks to women such as Ms. Shetterly and her work in Hidden Figures, wise women of deep faith and talent such as Katherine Johnson continue to inspire hope and collaboration in others—much needed traits in our world in 2017.

Mr. Murray is Head of School at Central Christian School in St. Louis, Missouri, and blogs at www.johnamurray.com.