Faith and Work Lessons from Hidden Figures

I am always on the look out for faith and work content in unexpected places. I got my wish when I watched Hidden Figures, a powerful movie describing the lives and work of three African American females: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. They worked as “computers” (humans doing mathematical calculations…and yes, this is where we get the word for the machine from) at NASA during the United States’ start in outer space exploration in the middle of the Civil Rights era. Their work was crucial to ensure the mathematical correctness of space flight.

As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of these women, known as “human computers”, we follow these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history’s greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes. —Movie synopsis from 20th Century Fox

Unfortunately, the three main characters faced injustice as a part of their work: as women, as African Americans, and as computers in NASA. They were looked down upon despite the high value and importance of their work to the success of NASA’s missions. The manner in which people of faith deal with and combat injustice is an integral part of our faith and work integration. Hidden Figures has some clues to finding our way through.

1) Do your work excellently, with integrity, and above reproach

All three women in this film had skills and talents that God gave them for advancing His kingdom. Unfortunately, each ran into resistance as they sought to use these skills. The culture at NASA was far from an ideal work environment. Each woman was faced with a point of decision at different points in the movie: she would either remain in her position and use the skills she had to do the work she was given to do, or quit. Each chose to do their work, but it was not easy.

Vaughan did the work of a supervisor without appropriate pay and title, in spite of being looked down on and mistreated.  Jackson worked diligently as the only woman on an engineering team, seeking advancement that was denied because of her skin color. Johnson performed thousands of calculations daily as well as reviewing those of her peers, despite being considered a second-class worker because of her race and gender. The Apostle Paul in Colossians 3:23, 24 says “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” This principle applies to all work, but is especially important in situations of injustice.

2) Challenge the status quo

The three women spotlighted in this film needed to perform the work they were given to do, but as they worked in unjust situations, they also needed to find ways to expose and challenge the status quo. The first step to challenging  injustices involves earning the right to be heard. However, after a period of time, they needed to be alert to opportunities to speak truth to power.

Katherine Johnson received a promotion to work in the NASA Space Task Group. She was doing good work and earned some trust and respect from her supervisor. Unfortunately, despite her excellent work, she was continually mistreated and not trusted by her co-workers. On one particular day, Katherine could not take it anymore and expressed her frustrations. Katherine had just returned from a 1/2 mile walk from the closest “colored” bathroom, in the rain, and was immediately confronted that she was not at her desk for extended periods of time each day. She told her boss the reason she was away from her desk for long periods of time each day was due to the 1/2 mile walk, one way, to the bathroom. In addition, she exposed the harsh working conditions she endured working day and night in a workplace where she was treated differently because of her gender and the color of her skin.

As a result of Katherine’s good work, she had established rapport with her supervisor and a result he saw the need for change. In the height of the Civil Rights era, the supervisor removed the colored-only coffee and colored restrooms from the NASA campus.

3) You will encounter obstacles and opposition. Your response is critical.

Like the women of Hidden Figures, we all will face obstacles and opposition. Circumstances will not always go as we would like; what is important however is our response. The women in this movie could have reacted immediately, but with wisdom decided to use their words only after they had a platform from which to speak. Their faithful and excellent work provided them such a platform. While their actions resulted in worldwide fame and a justified place in history, they were simply coming to work each day offering the gifts and talents they received from the Lord and infusing their faith into every activity they performed. Their skills and faith helped them to see an unjust system and they work diligently to expose and change it while working within it.

The response of the women in Hidden Figures reminded me of a new way of cultural engagement proposed by pastor and theologian, Dr. Greg Thompson. Thompson was CEO of the Thriving Cities Group, a Civic Design firm based in Charlottesville, Virginia and executive director of New City Commons, a social impact consulting firm that seeks to support institutional leaders in the work of reimagining the common good, reinvigorating cultural institutions, and renewing civic life. He is now is the Director of Research and Strategy at Clayborn Reborn, a historic Civil Rights site in Memphis, Tennessee and  Senior Advisor for the Tom Tom Founders Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia. Greg is also active in national conversations surrounding race and equity in America and holds a PhD from the University of Virginia where he wrote his dissertation on Martin Luther King, Jr.

Inspired by James Davison Hunter’s classic book To Change the World, Thompson wrote a white paper titled The Church In Our Time: Nurturing Congregations Of Faithful Presence. Thompson’s paper describes three common ways Christians engage with the culture and proposes a fourth as a new and better way.

The new paradigm that must be embraced—or rather, an old paradigm embraced anew—is that of incarnation. The incarnation paradigm suggests that the calling of the church is to go into the fullness of the culture, bearing the fullness of the gospel, for the purposes of redemption (John. 1).

Unlike fortification, the incarnational church seeks to follow Jesus into every sphere of creation. Unlike accommodation, the incarnational church not only moves fully into the world, but also retains the integrity of its God-given character and proclamation as it does so. And unlike domination, the incarnational church sees its movement into the world not as an angry movement of conquest but as a hopeful movement of redemptive love; seeking not to triumph over its neighbors, but to work for their flourishing.

This vision of the church’s calling as a movement into the fullness of culture, bearing the fullness of the gospel, and yet doing so for the purposes of redeeming love is what James Davison Hunter has referred to as faithful presence. And it is this paradigm that must be embraced if the church is truly to be the church in and for our time.

The incarnational interaction is not the easiest way to proceed by far, but it is the way to have your community’s long-term flourishing as your goal. The women of Hidden Figures challenge us toward this method of cultural engagement even as they challenge us to the integration of faith with our work even when we are in an unjust environment.

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