How do you know real wisdom when you see it?
In June, the City of Fairfax renamed its middle school to honor a wise and accomplished Virginia woman. Students in the city now attend “The Katherine Johnson Middle School.” Johnson was a mathematician whose calculations were critical to the success of the first generation of crewed NASA spaceflights.
“But wisdom, where does she come from?” asked Job. “Where is the place of understanding? She’s hidden from the eyes of all the living, concealed from birds of the sky” (Job 28:20-21). For years, Johnson’s wisdom was hidden because she was one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist. In a time of racial segregation, she quietly and accurately calculated trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for the Mercury spacecrafts. Later, she worked on the Apollo mission to the moon and the Space Shuttle program.
Over a 33-year career in space science, Johnson did calculations that were in harmony with the God who “looks to the ends of the earth and surveys everything beneath the heavens” (verse 24). Her work was not based on guesswork or wishful thinking, but it understood the order of God’s creation, from wind and water to rain and thunderbolts. She had a reputation for mastering complex mathematical calculations, as part of a pool of women that she called “computers who wore skirts.”
Then, in 2016, her story was told to people around the world by the film Hidden Figures, and in 2019 she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress. Two NASA facilities have been named in her honor, including the “Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.”
What remained hidden from many, however, was the role that the church played in her life. She was part of Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church for 50 years, where she sang in the choir. Johnson’s Christian faith was important to her, and she was aware that real wisdom involved more than analyzing gust alleviation for aircraft. Until she died at age 101, she knew the truth of the Book of Job, “Look, the fear of the Lord is wisdom; turning from evil is understanding” (verse 28).
I admire the wisdom of anyone who can do complex calculations without the benefit of an electronic calculator or computer. Brilliant scientists have expanded our human horizons in so many ways. But Johnson reminds me that true understanding includes respecting God as the creator of the universe, and choosing to turn from evil each day. Such wisdom can be shown by any of us, whether we are mathematical geniuses or not.
Teach me, Lord, to see wisdom in good moral choices and in a life of respect for you. Amen.