While many of us don’t aspire to life in the limelight, we can probably all agree that it would be nice to at least be recognized for our achievements and treated the same as everyone else. But what do you do when you find yourself working in relative obscurity regardless of your talents and not being afforded the perks and access that you rightfully deserve? Katherine Jackson’s story, as told in the movie Hidden Figures, is one such story.
A brilliant mathematics prodigy, Katherine started high school at age ten and finished college at the age of 18. As talented as she was, there were few job options available for educated African American women at the time, other than teaching. She eventually found full-time work at NASA in the mid-1950s as a human computer, one of a pool of women doing mathematical calculations for the engineers. Her extraordinary abilities soon landed her a more prominent role with the Space Task Group, whose mission was to get a man into space ahead of the Russians. A widow and single mother, Katherine not only had to prove her worth in an all-male environment and for unequal pay; as a woman of color she also had to traverse the minefield of segregation. Undaunted by the odds, Katherine led the way in calculating the launch and landing trajectories that enabled NASA to put a man in orbit, bring him safely home, and eventually put a man on the moon.
Leading Out of Obscurity
As with all the movies in this series, there is something to learned here of living life the way God would have us live it. So what can we learn from the story of Katherine’s influential, yet relatively obscure life? How did she do it? What’s one good way to lead from obscurity?
The Apostle Paul would tell us that no one is as obscure as we feel; God sees our work, so we work for him:
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters…” (Colossians 3:23, NIV)
He would also encourage us to endure hardship as you solve more problems. Work at it with all your heart. This is what Katherine did. She continued to work the math with everything she had despite blatant snubs from her male peers and the humiliation of being singled out because of her skin color. And as she solved more problems for the sake of the mission, she found herself becoming less obscure and being given even more responsibility.
Taking on Responsibility
This brings us to another life lesson: What’s one good way to get more in life? Take on more responsibility. Not only did Katherine live out this principle; she instilled it in her daughters as well. Upon coming home and finding her two younger girls fighting the older one for the privilege of not having to share a bed, Katherine promptly informed them that the perk came with the added responsibility of doing all Joylette’s chores. They declined. But Katherine did not shirk the added responsibility of extra work and long hours on the job. She followed the Apostle Paul’s example just as he tells us in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13:
“For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you.” 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Fight for the mission more than yourself
Again and again we see Katherine accepting the challenges life threw her way. If we were to look to her for advice on one good way to rise to the occasion, she might answer, Fight for the mission more than yourself. Rather than her story being about her treatment as a woman in a man’s world and as a person of color in the 1960s, it’s about her efforts to do everything she possibly could to help the space mission succeed. The Apostle Paul was also on a mission, sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father (Galatians 1:1, NIV)—on a mission to serve others and spread the gospel. His attitude was that of a servant:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” (1 Corinthians 9:19, NIV)
We, too, our called to be on mission for Christ, living not for ourselves, but as servants for the sake of others. We, too, are called to rise to the occasion by being on mission for God’s Kingdom:
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, NIV)
Addressing Inequality Where You Have Influence
While taking on the posture of a servant feels like a backwards slip into obscurity, as we learned from Katherine’s story, fighting the tide of obscurity and inequality does not mean that we are without influence. In fact, her hyper-focus on the mission’s need to succeed and her ensuing push to be included in all aspects of her job were instrumental in bringing about change in how women and people of color were viewed and treated in her workplace. So while she couldn’t solve the problem of inequality in the whole south, she could address it where she had influence.
And so it is with us. Paul reminds us in Galatians 3:26-29 that in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. And in Revelations 7:9, we see a picture of the social landscape of heaven:
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9 NIV)
Change can seem daunting and hopeless. But if we focus on addressing inequality wherever we have influence, we CAN make a difference. Both Katherine and the Apostle Paul did just that. They endured hardship, took on responsibility, focused on the mission at hand rather than themselves, and became a force for change in their circles of influence, one person at a time.