Born in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913, she continues to be remembered in the hearts of the American people. What a “herstory” she lived! And how could I even begin to tell her story here? What we think we know about Rosa Parks, in fact, is more like a fairy tale than an accurate picture of the person she was and the powerful transformation she brought in the quest for racial justice.
Rosa Parks was not one to dwell on one event — one bus ride, one boycott, one street named after her — she instead set her “eyes on the prize” for the long haul. She was one persistent woman. She was a mentor to the young people who would ultimately see the prize of equal justice under the law. Rosa Parks was not just a woman to be remembered by holding down one seat on one bus on one day. Instead, she set her sights on the transformation of injustice and never stopped moving towards justice for all.
I cannot tell her story adequately, but I can point to some of her milestones . . .
In August of 1955, black teenager Emmett Till, visiting relatives in Mississippi, was brutally murdered after allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till’s two murderers had just been acquitted. Rosa Parks was deeply disturbed and angered by the verdict. Just four days after hearing the verdict, she took her famous stand on the Montgomery bus ride that cemented her place as a civil rights icon. She later said this when the driver ordered her to move, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”
Rosa Parks sat in the black section, but when the white section filled up, the bus driver demanded that the four black passengers nearest the white section give up their seats. The other three black passengers reluctantly moved, but she did not. She recounted the scene: “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.’”
Many people have imagined Rosa Parks on that bus as an old woman tired after a long day of work. Yet, in her autobiography, My Story, Parks writes, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Rosa Parks endured significant hardships in her life, both during and after the boycott. She was unjustly fired from her department store job. She received an almost constant stream of death threats, so many that she eventually left Montgomery to seek work elsewhere, ultimately moving to Detroit. There she served as secretary and receptionist for Representative John Conyers, befriended Malcolm X, and became active in the Black Power movement.
In 1995, she published her memoir, Quiet Strength, focusing on her Christian faith.She insisted that her abilities to love her enemies and stand up for her convictions were gifts from God:
God has always given me the strength to say what is right. I had the strength of God, and my ancestors.
Rosa Parks died in 2005 at the age of 92 and she became the 31st person, the first woman, the second African American, and the second private citizen to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
More than 50,000 people came through to pay their respects.
Her birthday is celebrated as Rosa Parks Day in California and Missouri.
Ohio and Oregon celebrate the day on December 1, the anniversary of her arrest.
One last milestone of her remarkable story . . .
In 1994, the Ku Klux Klan applied to sponsor a section of Interstate 55 near St. Louis, Missouri, which would mean the Klan’s name would appear on roadside signs announcing the sponsorship. In 2001, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri cannot discriminate against the Ku Klux Klan when it comes to groups that want to participate in the adopt-a-highway program. Of course, while the name of the Klan is aesthetically disgusting to many people, this decision was a victory for free speech and equal protection under the law, right?
In the end, the Missouri Department of Transportation got sweet revenge! Sure, they couldn’t remove the KKK’s adopt-the-highway sign, but few would dispute the state’s ability to name the highway itself. So the KKK is now cleaning up their adopted stretch of the highway named by the Missouri legislature and christened as “Rosa Parks Highway.”
Rosa Parks did not crave the spotlight. Nor did she care all that much about highways and byways bearing her name. She probably did want to be known as a person who persisted in the struggle for racial justice. She told us that in these words:
I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people.
You are remembered as such a person, Mrs, Rosa Parks! Happy birthday in heaven. You are our inspiration. You are one of our sheros, our wonder woman!
This morning, I prayed a prayer of lament. Lament was the only prayer in my spirit. It is difficult to express the deep sorrow I felt yesterday when I learned that no charges were brought against the police who shot six bullets into Breonna Taylor’s body.
Shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, Louisville police officers used a battering ram to enter the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician who had dreams of a bright career ahead. She and her boyfriend had settled in to watch a movie in her bedroom on that tragic night. Police came to her door and minutes later, she was fatally shot. Her death sparked months of protests in Louisville.
Yesterday, six months after the fatal shooting — six bullets — a grand jury indicted a former Louisville police officer on Wednesday for wanton endangerment for his actions during the raid. A grand jury delivered the long-awaited answer about whether the officers would be punished. No charges were announced against the other two officers who fired shots, and no one was charged for causing Breonna Taylor’s death.
For me, there was only lament. I imagine that for Breonna’s family, there was the deepest kind of lament. For her mother, lament was the only response she could express as she wept uncontrollably. And, even for the protesters who filled the streets, I believe there was lament.
Theologian Soong-Chan Rah explains in his book, Prophetic Lament, that in the Bible lament is “a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and suffering.” He goes on to say that it is a way to “express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering.” Racism has inflicted incalculable suffering on black people throughout the history of the United States, and in such a context, lament is not only understandable but necessary.
Perhaps white Christians and all people of faith have an opportunity to mourn with those who mourn and to help bear the burden that racism has heaped on black people. (Romans 12:15) — Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise
In the end, many people see only the rage, anger, impatience, violence of the protesters. Can we also see their lament for Breonna, as well as for centuries of racially motivated murder — beatings, burnings, lynchings and murder committed by police officers?
People of faith — white people of faith — will we try to understand the rage of our black and brown sisters and brothers? Will we join them in righteous anger? Will we mourn with them? Will we lament when lament fills their souls and overflows in cries for justice?
We must, in the name of our God who created every person in God’s own image!
Last night, I heard an interview with Brittany Packnett Cunningham on MSNBC. Her words were eloquent pleas for justice. She spoke about how persistent and all-encompassing racism is in our country and about the murders and the protests and the political rancor that fuels it. She acknowledged racism’s strong, unrelenting hold on this nation, a hold that is virtually impossible to break. And she said something I have said for a long time, “Racism cannot be reformed. It must be transformed.”
To me that means a transformation of the heart and soul that compels each of us to lament, to comfort, to speak truth in government’s halls of power, to stand openly against any form of racial injustice.
May God make it so.
Will you pray this prayer of lament with me?
O God, who heals our brokenness, Receive our cries of lament and teach us how to mourn with those who mourn. Receive even our angry lament and transform our anger into righteous action. Hear the anguish of every mother assaulted by violence against her child. Hear the angry shouts of young people as shouts of frustration, fear and despair. Grant us the courage to persist in shouting out your demand for justice, for as long as it takes. When deepest suffering causes us to lament, grant us Spirit wind and help us soar. If we resist your call for justice, compel us to holy action. May our soul’s lament stir us to transform injustice, in every place, for every person, whenever racism threatens, for this is your will and our holy mission. Amen.
Because I am a citizen of the state of Georgia, I can call him mine — my congressman, my conscience, my inspiration.
John Lewis A warrior in building the soul of America
Representative John Lewis, a son of sharecroppers and an apostle of nonviolence who was bloodied at Selma and across the Jim Crow South in the historic struggle for racial equality, and who then carried a mantle of moral authority into Congress, died on Friday. He was 80.*
Twice he was beaten to an inch of his life.
I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life. — John Lewis
On the front lines of the bloody campaign to end Jim Crow laws, with blows to his body and a fractured skull to prove it, Mr. Lewis was a valiant stalwart of the civil rights movement and the last surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington — where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech — but Lewis was almost refused to be allowedto speak by march organizers because of his strident criticism of the Kennedy administration.
Lewis went on to serve 17 terms in the US House of Representatives, where he was considered the north star of conscience in Congress.**
Tributes to the life and legacy of John Lewis came from hundreds of voices.
“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did,” former President Obama said in a written tribute. “And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.”
Joe Biden, and his wife, Jill, issued a statement that began, “We are made in the image of God, and then there is John Lewis. How could someone in flesh and blood be so courageous, so full of hope and love in the face of so much hate, violence, and vengeance?”
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said: “His courage helped transform this country. He won’t ever be forgotten by those who believe America can change when the people stand together and demand it.”
Sen. Kamala Harris of California said of Lewis, “He carried the baton of progress and justice to the very end. It now falls on us to pick it up and march on.” ***
And so we will, to honor his memory and to persist in the fight against injustice.
America’s inspiration for getting into “good trouble”
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
— A tweet from June 2018
I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.
— At the 1963 March on Washington
Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.
— From his 2017 memoir, “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America”
My dear friends: Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.
— From a 2012 speech in Charlotte, North Carolina
You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone—any person or any force—dampen, dim or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant.
— From his 2017 memoir, “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America”
We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.
— At a 2016 House sit-in following the Pulse shooting in Orlando
When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.
— 2019 remarks in the House on impeachment of President Trump
May his words echo in our hearts and reach the soul of every American.
May he rest in peace and — from above — inspire us to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” as he did.
Servant of God and champion for justice, now called to his heavenly home
The civil rights movement and womanist theology? Not much in common between the two, it seems. Maybe, maybe not! The thing is: God’s people are guided by Spirit into an unjust world where people are oppressed, not just through a particular movement, whether it is for civil rights or equity for women. People are oppressed beyond any movement. People are oppressed in everyday life, today, as well as in past struggles for liberation.
God is all about liberation from oppression, now and in the future. The battle for liberation is ongoing and never-ending. And God’s people — you and I — cannot follow Christ in “loving our neighbors as we love ourselves” unless we stand alongside people who are oppressed, unless we pour our lives into building a just society where every person is treated according to the well worn and well loved declaration that “all people are created equal.”
If you believe there is nothing in common between the civil rights movement and womanist theology, then you do not know much about The Rev. Dr. Prathia LauraAnn Hall (1940 – 2002), who was an undersung leader for civil rights, a bulwark of the black church in the United States and an advocate of the womanist vision of equity and equality.
In the recently published book, Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, Courtney Cox paints the portrait of Prathia Hall as a woman of deep conviction, courage and eloquence who literally embodied the longing for the rights of every person and the womanist vision of equality.
You may not know much about her, but Prathia Hall electrified audiences through her speaking and preaching.
I say to you our daughters and sons, it is in you! Every time you behold the world as it is and dare to dream of what it must become that’s the fire of freedom’s faith. . . Every time you grab hold of the United States of America and like Israel dare to wrestle and declare to it — We will not let you go until you bless us — That is freedom faith’s fire. It is in you — It’s in us. — Prathia Hall
You may not know much about her, but Prathia Hall was an inspiring leader in the Southwest Georgia Project in Albany, Georgia, in the civil rights struggle in Selma, Alabama, and in the multiorganization Atlanta, Georgia project.
Prathia Hall literally changed the course of the civil rights movement. As a “firebrand” in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hall labored tirelessly under the central guiding principle of her life, her activism and her ministry. Her life’s guiding principle was “Freedom Faith, the belief that God wants people to be free and equips and empowers those who work for freedom.”
In Hall’s work in door-to-door voter registration, in church-based educational programs, inspirational mass meetings, and through her scholarship and preaching, Freedom Faith found its ultimate expression in her womanist vision of the liberation of all people. For Hall, freedom was not only about the goals of the civil rights movement, it was about the many layered forms of oppression — racism, classism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, denominationalism — all formidable obstacles to human rights.
You may not know her name, but Prathia Hall was listed in Ebony Magazine’s 1997 “15 Greatest Black Women Preachers.” It is said of Prathia Hall that her call to ministry was both her glory and her burden. Yet her preaching electrified masses of people bowed low by oppression.
They called us: ‘nigger,’ ‘winch,’ ‘buck,’ ‘slave,’ but out there in the brush arbors, the wilderness, and the woods, the God of our ancestors, the God we had known on the other side of the waters met us and whispered words in our ears, and stirred a song in our souls . . . — Prathia Hall
You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but she was an indefatigable activist for human rights, a brilliant scholar, an engaging speaker, a compelling preacher, a distinguished theologian. Hall’s theology focused on liberation from all forms of oppression, and she did not shrink from the womanist theology that called out sexism and the duplicity of the Black Church in recognizing the call of women only in narrow and constricted ways. In an absolute articulation of her womanist vision of inclusion, Hall espoused a multidimensional structure of oppression. “Gender-based oppression,” she wrote, “isn’t a trivial inconvenuence. It’s human devastation.” As an insider, choosing to remain in ministry in the Baptist Church, Hall’s courage and conviction never ceased from criticizing a Church that opposedracism, but toleratedsexism.
It absolutely boggles my mind as well as grieves my spirit that brothers, with whom I have stood side by side in the struggle, brothers with whom I have bowed, knelt, prayed, worked, struggled, gone to jail, dodged bullets, and caught bullets, claim to be unable to make the transition from the critique of race-based oppression to the critique of gender and class-based oppression. — Prathia Hall
You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but her very soul was embroiled in the civil rights drama. In the summer of 1962, four black churches in Georgia’s Lee and Terrell Counties, all associated with the movement, were burned by white supremacists.
Hall and other SNCC workers wept together in the ashes of the Mount Olive Baptist Church. The next day the SNCC received a phone call that Martin Luther King, Jr. intended to visit Albany to attend a prayer vigil over the ashes of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Sasser. According to the New York Times, “As the sun sets across the cotton fields, some fifty Negroes and two whites met at Mount Olive for a prayer vigil. Joining hands, they sang softly, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”
After the song, Prathia Hall led the group in prayer, her voice breaking in grief. According to oral tradition, Hall repeated the phrase “I have a dream,” each time followed by a specific vision of racial justice. After the service, King asked for her permission to use the “I have a dream” phrase, which she granted. From the oral evidence gathered from several witnesses, one can definitely make a case for Prathia Hall as the source of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. — Courtney Cox, Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall
You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but in the pages of Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, author Courtney Cox lays bare the world of this fascinating woman of God. She presents Prathia Hall through various lenses: Christian minister, liberation theologian, civil rights activist and leader, professor and scholar, preacher and speaker, mother, daughter, wife, agitator, womanist theologian.
Until now, you may not have known much about Prathia Hall, but many notables spoke of her abilities:
One in a million . . . A model that needs to be lifted up in every seminary of all races . . . so people can get a glimpse of what someone who has really said yes to ministry and who went to her grave living that ministry daily. — Jeremiah Wright
The best preacher in the United States, possessing proven ability to exegete, illustrate, celebrate and apply the scriptures healingly to the problems, pains and perplexities of the people who sit ready to hear a word from Yahweh. — Charles Adams, former president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention
. . . She was known for her commitment, her dedication, her stick-to-it-ness, for hanging in there, for never giving up or giving in. — Rep. John Lewis
So what about the civil rights movement and womanist equality? Is there any commonality between them? Certainly there is commonality — both are never-ending struggles for justice, because we are a country where various groups of people are still denied their civil rights and woman are still suppressed and oppressed. Both movements — and many other struggles for justice — require our commitment, our resolve, our persistence, our courage, our compassion, our best efforts and our faithfulness to God.
At least for me, Prathia Hall’s life begs several questions:
What is it that I am passionate about, willing to follow God with courage to fulfill that passion?
Is there an injustice I must stand against?
Is there any oppression, any wrong, that I am compelled to confront?
Is there anything I care about deeply enough that I will dig deep into myself to find the courage to defend it?
Fair questions, I think, for those who are trying to follow God into places of need! Compelling questions for those who are trying to follow God in offering compassionate care to the oppressed and hurting people who need us! Compelling questions for those who are trying to follow God in freeing people who live in various forms of bondage!
These are urgent questions for God followers!
I pray that I am able to sit with those questions and respond to them boldly as an act of my faith. I pray that for you, too.
Finally, do we dare we ask what will be our reward for seeking justice for the oppressed people around us? Probably not, yet this beloved passage of Scripture does speak of both our call from God and what we will receive for our commitment to our call.
. . . Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear . . .
Then my favor will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. I will always be with you to save you; my presence will protect you on every side. When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.
If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon. And I will always guide you and satisfy you with good things. I will keep you strong and well. You will be like a garden that has plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry.
— Isaiah 58:6-11 Good News Translation (GNT)
So let us follow God into every place of need, every place of injustice, every place where oppression has raised its evil head. Let us follow God — as an embodiment of Christ’s love and compassion — until that day when “the darkness around us turns to the brightness of noon.”
May God make it so. May God find us faithful. Amen.
I offer you this music to listen to as you spend time in prayer and meditation
Commemorating 2020 International Women’s Day seems important. It is important to me to pause on this day, because I am a woman who has struggled for equality. My female friends and colleagues have had similar struggled.
In the past weeks we have watched one woman after another end their candidacies for president of the United States. Senator Elizabeth Warren commented that Americans still may not be able to see a woman in the role of president. She said it with obvious sadness and with a catch in her throat, displaying the disappointment of many women and girls. Those of us who are older lament that we will not see a woman as president in our lifetimes, while little girls, teens and young women were hoping beyond hope for evidence in 2020 that dreams are possible. Lily Adams, granddaughter of the late Texas Governor Ann Richards, said this on Thursday night in an MSNBC interview: “Women have to run faster to get half as far.” How true that is!
International Women’s Day gives me an opportunity to celebrate women who are all-in, working tirelessly for equality, justice and positive change and constantly rearranging things. This years theme is “If you can see her, you can be her.” It is an appropriate theme for women who struggle daily to be seen and respected as equals.
In these days, we are seeing, right before our eyes, so many stunning examples of women who champion various causes.
Activist Sarah Tenoi is leading the charge against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya.
In 2012 at the age of 15, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan. The assassination attempt was a response to her stand for the right of girls to gain an education after the Taliban banned them from attending school.
Helena Morrissey is a British businesswoman and mother of nine who is helping to change the face of British boardrooms.
As the founder and acting president of Girl Up in Qatar, Sarah Hesterman works with the UN to provide young girls with education in developing countries. Hesterman hopes that providing greater opportunities will allow girls to grow up with more self-confidence.
Greta is a Swedish environmental activist on climate change whose campaigning has gained international recognition. She is known for her straightforward speaking manner through which she urges immediate action to address the climate crisis.
“We can’t just continue living as if there was no tomorrow, because there is a tomorrow,” she says, tugging on the sleeve of her blue sweatshirt. “That is all we are saying.”
It’s a simple truth, delivered by a teenage girl in a fateful moment in our time. (Time Magazine)
In the early years of my career as a graphic designer and then through my years of ministry, I was often accused of being aggressive. Now you need to understand that “Aggressive” would be the last word I would have used to describe myself. But like many women, I often found myself biding my time, playing the game of acting “ladylike” around my male colleagues, and choosing my words and my demeanor carefully when I wanted to make a point.
That was Stage 1 of me. Stage 2 of me is the one that was labeled aggressive. Those who know me well would say that there is not an aggressive bone in my body. And that is true (unless I have to defend my child or my grandchildren). But I can be as aggressive as I need to be when injustice rears its ugly head or someone I love needs defending. Stage 3 of me has learned to be respectfully assertive. “Respectfully assertive” behavior helped to open doors that once were closed to me. That’s a good thing.
But here’s the caveat — as other women have, I have been compelled to learn how to be aggressive/assertive along a continuum, examining my situation and wisely choosing what my aggressive/assertive level should be at any given moment. The continuum looks something like this . . .
Like many, many women, I know that in order to effect positive change in the world, positive assertiveness is key. It’s all a matter of being self-confident enough to step up even if others criticize, speak out even when others try to silence you, persevere even when your detractors try to stop you from moving forward, hold on to your dreams even when dream-less persons tell you that your dreams are impossible.
My path to ordination was riddled with people around me telling me that ordination for a woman was impossible. At that time, there was only one ordained Baptist woman in the state of Arkansas and she was ordained in another state. My ordination process required enormous change in almost every person and institution around me. That change was not pleasant for anyone. It went on for months with lots of chaos and no resolution in sight. At the time, I thought I had only two choices: to abandon my desire for change or to stay in the struggle until change happened. I faced off with criticizers, silencers, discouragers and dream-less persons. Perseverance won that time!
My ordination quest was only one of many situations in which I had to fight for positive change. So I was almost always on the bad side of someone, and most unfortunately, I earned a reputation of being persistent, stubborn, insistent, resolved, Tenacious, determined, single-minded, resolute, uncompromising, annoying, troublesome, unconscionable and — wait for it — aggressive. I actually like most of those labels!
During a particularly discordant struggle with Little Rock city government about advocacy programs have for young people, a friend and mentor, who was the city’s Director of Community Programs, shared with me a Sierra Leonean Proverb that turned out to be an incredibly practical piece of wisdom. I immediately framed it and put it in my office so that I could see it often. She gave me that proverb in the late 90’s and, to this day, it is visible and prominent in my space.
She who upsets a thing should know how to rearrange it.
— a Sierra Leonean proverb
I seemed to upset lots of things in my lifetime. Often, I had no idea how to rearrange them. So I want to tell you about a woman who achieved what seemed impossible in her life and rearranged many things — discrimination, injustice, racism. She definitely upset things in her workplace, in the people around her and in NASA’s algorithms for space travel. She also rearranged those algorithms and helped send our astronauts into space.
Today I celebrate and remember Katherine Johnson, famed NASA mathematician and inspiration for the film “Hidden Figures.” She died a few weeks ago at 101 years of age. For almost her entire life, her brilliant work in American space travel went unnoticed. She was a pioneering mathematician who, along with a group of other brilliant black women, made U.S. space travel possible. And no one noticed for decades.
In fact, her work went largely unrecognized until the release of “Hidden Figures,” a film portrayal of Johnson’s accomplishments while the space agency was still largely segregated. Only the film, which was released in 2017, resulted in international recognition of Katherine Johnson’s genius.
Interestingly enough, her talent was evident early on. Her natural aptitude for math was quickly evident, and she became one of three black students chosen to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools. After graduating from high school at age 14, Katherine Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State, a historically black college. As a student, she took every math course offered by the college. Multiple professors mentored her, including W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African-American to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. Claytor added new mathematics courses just for Johnson, and she graduated summa cum laude in 1937 at age 18, with degrees in mathematics and French. She started her career as a teacher but had her sights set on mathematical research.
Following an executive order that prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry, Johnson was hired at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor. She was one of several black researchers with college degrees hired for the agency’s aeronautical lab through the initiative.
Johnson was part of NASA’s Computer Pool, a group of mathematicians whose data powered NASA’s first successful space missions. The group’s success largely hinged on the accomplishments of its black women members. Katherine Johnson was tasked with performing trajectory analysis for Alan Shepherd’s 1961 mission, the first American human spaceflight. She co-authored a paper on the safety of orbital landings in 1960, the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division received credit for a report.
In 1953 she worked in the facility’s segregated wing for women, but was quickly transferred to the Flight Research Division, where she remained for several years. But midway through the ’50s, the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union began to intensify. So did Katherine Johnson’s career. Without the precision of “human computer” Katherine Johnson, NASA’s storied history might have looked a lot different. Her calculations were responsible for safely rocketing men into space and securing the American lead in the space race against the Soviet Union.
After the release of the book “Hidden Figures,” which was published in 2016 and turned into a film the following year, officials lobbed heaps of praise on Johnson and two other black women mathematicians in the agency’s Computer Pool, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. NASA renamed a facility for Johnson in February 2019. A street in front of NASA headquarters in Washington was renamed “Hidden Figures Way” for the three women in July.
In November of 2019, the three women — plus engineer Christine Darden — received Congressional Gold Medals for their contributions to space travel. Vaughan and Jackson received theirs posthumously. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine called Johnson an “American Hero who helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space.”
President Barack Obama honored Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her pivotal work in American space travel. Yet, Johnson’s work was still minimized and unrecognized by her male co-workers. Around her NASA workplace in the 1960s, she and her colleagues were known as “computers in skirts.”
I saved for last the best story of all! In 1962, John Glenn actually demanded Katherine Johnson’s help before his orbit around Earth. He was skeptical of the computers that calculated his spacecraft’s trajectory, so he told engineers to “get the girl” and to compare her handwritten calculations to the computer’s.
“‘If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,'” Johnson remembered Glenn saying. She gave the OK, and Glenn’s flight was a success.
Not to be flippant about the 2020 democratic presidential nomination process, but here’s a good message to send to whichever white guy gets the nomination: “When you are choosing your running mate, ‘get the girl!’”
And to all the women who hold up far more than half the sky, I honor you on this International Women’s Day and cheer you on toward your dreams and toward your mission of rearranging the world.
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied,
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
I wonder . . . was it her faith or her stubborn tenacity that led to her daughter’s healing? Stubbornness is typically not one of the virtues to which Christians aspire. In fact most of Christendom would rebuke a stubborn woman, in ages past as well as in our day. I know this to be truth! I have been rebuked a time or two, or at least received “strong suggestions” that I should dial back my demeanor. The woman of Canaan, though, returned to Jesus again and again until he healed her suffering daughter.
I can be a bit tenacious, but no one would describe me as stubborn. I typically have a very calm and quiet demeanor, but I remember well one of the few times in my life when I was fierce and stubborn. Our son Jonathan was quite young and very sick with severe vomiting, along with strong spasms that caused him to be unable to breathe. The loud inhalations as he struggled to get a breath were extremely frightening to us, especially to him. Jonathan was a strong boy, an athlete, and very self-sufficient, but these long episodes brought him directly to his Momma. We had been to the hospital emergency room and were now in his pediatrician’s office. This violent gasping for air had been going on for hours, and it should have been obvious to the office staff that Jonathan was in trouble.
Now they would know real trouble!
Jonathan had another violent attack. I jumped up from my chair, went to the desk, and had some strong words to say, in a loud voice, with the passion of a mother desperate to protect her child. I got the familiar line about the doctor running behind.
You know, I don’t care if the doctor is behind! (in my loudest voice) Can you not see and hear that my child is throwing up all over your waiting area and is unable to breathe? Do you realize that he could be infecting every child in here? Take us to an exam room, NOW, and get the doctor away from whatever he’s doing! Because if you don’t, I am headed to the president of Baptist Medical Center who knows me very well because I am a chaplain in this hospital!
Not like me at all! But that is a “Momma response” that almost always erupts when her child is hurting or in trouble. We were in a desperate place and were being ignored. Jonathan was terribly frightened and had been dealing with these spasms for hours. In time (too much time) it was resolved and we were able to get Jonathan settled and resting.
And about the “Canaanite Momma” . . . well, she was definitely stubborn and persistent that day. Clearly, Jesus did not realize who he was dealing with. Maybe he did know! Perhaps Jesus knew precisely what he was doing and chose to use his encounter with the woman from Canaan as a teaching moment for his hearers. Or perhaps he was simply in a stubborn mood and found himself facing someone who could easily match him, stubborn for stubborn!
Either way, the story shows us that when it comes to saving what needs to be saved, being merely nice and calm won’t usually win the day. Sometimes we need to dig in our heels and do some hollering! The text simply portrays the Canaanite woman as a stubborn, persistent mother of a very sick daughter.
Remember, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. She was obviously making a lot of noise, crying out and disturbing their quietude! On top of that, Jesus was somewhat stubborn himself, saying that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
But this “Canaanite Momma” went back to Jesus straightaway, knelt down before him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
And we know what Jesus finally did. He praised her faith and healed her daughter. So was it faith or was it stubbornness, persistence? Maybe it was both, that her faith empowered her to stubborn persistence. Clearly, she believed Jesus was able to heal her daughter, so she tried to convince Jesus more than once. The disciples didn’t deter her. Jesus Could not dissuade her with his statement about dogs!
“Woman, you have great faith.”
A wonderful portrayal of what this woman might have said about her encounter with Jesus is a poem written by Jan Richardson entitled “Stubborn Blessing.”
Don’t tell me no.
i have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill from your hands like water, like wine,
seen you with circles and circles of crowds pressed around you
and not one soul turned away.
Don’t start with me.
i am saying
you can close the door
but i will keep knocking.
You can go silent
but i will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle
but i will trace a bigger one
around the life of my child
who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother for stubbornness.
i am saying
i know what you
can do with crumbs
and i am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
unclench your hand,
let the scraps fall
for the life
of my child,
the life of
The work of protection is definitely not for the faint of heart. The work of advocacy on behalf of another person may take some stubborn persistence, the kind of stubborn persistence that Jesus seemed to call by another name — “great faith.” When we advocate for people who are suffering, especially people in need of profound physical healing or deep spiritual healing, their greatest need calls us to our greatest resolve, a fierce resolve. Maybe a touch of defiance! It is in those moments that we call on our hearts to give us strength for sacred stubbornness that will heal the broken, comfort the brokenhearted, restore justice to those who are oppressed.