We had a sermon series at Floris UMC recently called “Deeper Conversations.” The big idea was that if we learned about other religions we would be more likely to love our neighbors in our diverse community and we would learn a lot about our own beliefs. The communication I received over the past four weeks from church members has been nothing but positive. Which is why I was sad on Sunday afternoon when I pulled into the church driveway and saw that the sign advertising the series, which had symbols of four major world religions, had been slashed. I was grateful that the vandal waited until after the last sermon to deface our sign but was disturbed nonetheless.
There is a lot of fear in America today. More than I have seen in the general population in my lifetime. I was pleased to see that Bishop Bruce Ough, the president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, was one of 2,000 religious leaders who signed the petition by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition related to recent immigration bans resulting from an executive order by the president. United Methodists have a long-standing relationship with Church World Service and other organizations that work to resettle refugees dating back to the 1950s. This is not new territory for us. Groups in this coalition believe that “the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program has been and should remain open to those of all nationalities and religions who face persecution on account of the reasons enumerated under U.S. law.” Our church has offered support to Christians, but it has also assisted people of goodwill who passed through the nation’s rigorous screening programs from other faith traditions, including Muslims and Hindus. This has proved beneficial to the United States in many ways. Just ask the immigrants around you who work in engineering, computer science, medicine and many other vocations in our community. These are people who are loyal to our country, pay their taxes and support the religious freedom found in their new home.
But now we are being told that we cannot be too careful. In the midst of a global refugee crisis, we are told that the good work of the defense and intelligence community that routinely screens refugees admitted into our borders is simply not good enough. Rather than continue to be open to the resettlement of Middle Eastern refugees and allow Muslim visa holders to travel freely as they do business in the U.S. or visit family members, we have to shut down our borders. In the process of shutting down our borders, the executive order effectively shuts down a great deal of goodwill with key allies around the globe and hope to people who are languishing in the despair of a life in which refugees, on average, spend 17 years in resettlement camps before making the next move. It is despair that breeds radicalization, not religion as it is commonly practiced by the vast majority of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus.
Christians who are citizens of the United States would do well to recall their own history. Go see “Hidden Figures.” Go see it now before it leaves the theaters. It is based on the true and inspiring story of a team of African-American women who provided NASA with the mathematical data used to launch our country’s first space missions. Three of these women, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, were simply remarkable in their determination, ability and desire to see the nation succeed in space exploration. The movie also details the way the culture of NASA had to change in order to allow the gifts of these women to be expressed. The segregated bathrooms and water fountains and accompanying attitudes about race found everywhere in the United States in the early 1960s were also found in their workplace. There is a very satisfying scene in which Al Harrison, the head of the Space Task Group, rips the “colored only” sign off the women’s room with a sledgehammer after discovering that his best mathematician, Katherine Goble, had been walking a half mile simply to use the restroom each day. It is a shame that integration could not come so easily in the rest of our country.
I have thought about that scene in the time since I saw the movie. What would motivate a white man in 1961 to take the risk to integrate his workplace to more fully include African-American women? I think the answer is this: Harrison was desperate for success. He had seven astronauts who all hoped to be the first to orbit the earth. He knew how to send them up. He had no idea how to bring them back down. The Soviets were winning the Space Race and time was short. He had a math problem and realized that he needed everyone he could find who could help figure out how to accomplish that mission. Leave no genius behind, and don’t let the old arguments get in the way.
The argument against including Goble and the other female African-American NASA employees was focused on themes of fear, trust and safety. Could African Americans truly be trusted to contribute to the space program? Could a woman really be trusted in a high security clearance environment? So often we tell ourselves that people are not worth the risk. We can never be too cautious. But Harrison was simply too motivated by a desire for success to buy into fear. He invited Goble to the meeting. He opened up the workplace. Together, NASA figured out the math that got a man to space and back.
Our nation’s history is full of the failure that fear inevitably brings. Black soldiers who would have fought bravely for the Union in the Civil War for years were relegated to noncombat roles in the army because of the prevailing assumption that they could not be trusted with a gun. The fear was that they would not have courage in battle or might turn on white regiments fighting nearby. The bravery of the African-American 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the assault of Fort Wagner in 1863 helped the nation understand what remarkable soldiers such regiments could be in the war effort. President Roosevelt, by executive order, interred U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. They were taken from their homes and businesses and were forced to sit unproductively in camps for fear that they would collaborate with the enemy. Years later President Carter commissioned an investigation that determined that the fear was unjustified and racist. President Reagan signed legislation that included both an apology and the payment of reparations to survivors.
I am pleased that Bishop Ough signed the recent petition and placed the name of the United Methodist Church clearly against racism and fear. Given our rigorous screening standards, I believe that it is possible for America to remain a harbor of hope for those who seek refuge on our shores. I am saddened that that such an idea today seems to sound as crazy to many in our country as putting a man on the moon did in 1961.