The contentious, almost soap opera-esque Supreme Court hearings and attendant outrage have made for an anxious and depressing couple of weeks in the news. Between Facebook rantings, incessant negativity from the media and knowing that the public airing of sexual assault allegations is difficult for many people I care for, I felt like hiding under the covers. Heck, even the flashback to my own 1980-something Senior Beach Week (Full disclosure: there was beer) wasn’t the most enjoyable walk down memory lane I’ve ever experienced. So I was very much looking forward to the little overnight getaway hubby and I were taking to New York City Saturday night to catch Come From Away on Broadway. I thought the show would be a nice distraction from the tumult of our current politics. Little did I know that it would be a reflection of just what we need to get beyond that tumult.
Come From Away tells the story of the people who were grounded in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 when American air space was closed. For the better part of a week, this small town of fewer than 10,000 residents cared for roughly 6,600 stranded passengers. They opened their schools, community centers and even their homes to house the passengers. Gander residents fed and clothed and entertained citizens of 19 countries and virtually every state in the union. (And dozens of animals, including a pregnant Bonobo monkey!)
Beyond being a stunning piece of stagecraft, with 12 actors seamlessly slipping from character to character to tell the individual and collective stories of nearly 16,000 people, Come From Away is a testament to those things which bring us together, despite our differences. Gander residents simply cared for the “plane people” out of love and basic human decency, without regard to race, nationality or sexual orientation. Our society seems bound and determined to divide us, from political hysteria to social media algorithms, to a culture of victimization. Come from Away reminds us of our 9/12 selves, when we were all simply Americans, and how the power of personal interaction can contradict the forces of chaos and division.
In one scene, as the townspeople scurry to get a shelter ready for their guests, they don their rarely used Salvation Army uniforms–much to the concern of an African family, for whom military uniforms don’t always signal a helping hand. Not understanding English, they refuse to enter the shelter in their fear. One Gander resident notices the mother is clutching a Bible, and even though the words aren’t the same, she know the verse numbers are. She pulls out her own Bible and points to Philippians 4:6—“Be anxious for nothing”. The African woman smiles at her and they sing, “That’s how we began speaking the same language.”
Others share the common language of humanity. A black New Yorker and a gay couple from L.A. are initially wary of the homogeneous, small town Newfoundlanders but are won over when it’s clear that the Gander residents see beyond their race or sexual orientation. They simply see them as fellow humans in need of food, shelter and companionship in a very uncertain situation. Looked at as individuals, as friends, the hardened city folks relax into the small town affection as their own prejudices fall away.
And isn’t that what you see in your own world? So many forces seek to divide us, and some days it feels like it’s working when I look at the news—people screeching at each other and running folks out of restaurants. But when I get my head out of the news and into real life and I see people smiling at one another, making connections, just living life. Come From Away shows that simple human kindness can triumph over cynicism, and that we can actually get along when we don’t listen to the hysterical noise and just try to see each other as individuals, not members of some group.
Make me a channel of your peace
Where there is hatred let me bring your love
Where there is injury, your pardon Lord
And where there’s doubt, true faith in you.
–Prayer of St. Francis–
One of the most moving numbers in Come From Away is “Prayer”–when the “plane people” ask to be taken to churches to pray. A passenger remembers a hymn from his childhood and begins singing “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” as Jews, Hindus and Muslims pray in multiple languages beneath the melody. Catholics kneel and cross themselves next to prayer rugs.
Seeing the New York audience moved by this religious scene, by a hymn on Broadway of all things, really did give me hope that we can be a 9/12 people again. (Remember when the entire Congress sang “God Bless America” right after 9/11? Seems like a lifetime ago.) So let’s post cat videos instead of political screeds. Let’s talk to each other, not yell at each other. Let’s look at those who disagree with us as human beings, not as enemies. We can be channels of His peace in our world. And it starts by embracing what connects us, not what divides us.