Fourteenth Weekend After Pentecost (A/RCL): 9/11 & Love of Neighbor Who Has ‘Come From Away’
September 9-10, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
I hadn’t cried at a Broadway show since first seeing the closing scene of Les Miserables, when Fantine comes out of the shadows to usher Jean Valjean to his eternal reward…. That got to me because Fantine had entrusted her little girl Cosette into Valjean’s care as she lay dying – and I thought of my mom and my dad. It wasn’t a matter of sneaking a Kleenex out of my purse to dry a few tears. I was nearly sobbing out loud.
Which almost happened again a couple weeks ago. Pastor Mark & I went into the City to see “Come From Away,” the new musical about an event that wouldn’t seem to lend itself to a musical: the aftermath of 9/11, when the 13,000 or so residents of Gander, Newfoundland, offered hospitality to 6, 579 passengers on 38 planes that were diverted from their original destinations and grounded because US airspace was closed.
It would have been powerful even if the performance weren’t in New York City, even if we hadn’t seen it so close to the 9/11 anniversary, even if we hadn’t lived through those days. But all those factors just intensified the experience – and I wondered how those who were directly involved could bear the emotion of it all. There were sniffles audible throughout the theater, and I spied a man sitting near us wiping his cheek. There was an immediate, sustained standing ovation when the performance was over. The people in front of us turned around, and seeing us so moved, asked if we’re from NY. We
learned they’d driven up from Baltimore just for the performance – and that the woman’s brother died a few months ago after suffering a quick bout with some pulmonary disease they believe he contracted from being just blocks away from the towers when they went down. It was an unusual level of sharing with strangers in a theater. Usually “Excuse me,” and “No problem” are the only words exchanged as latecomers squeeze past those who are already seated.
The amazing thing is that a show that packs such an emotional wallop also has many delightful, hilarious, heartwarming moments. And the music and singing are great: sometimes soulful, sometimes silly, always spirited. What those people who live in that isolated, weather-severe place they call “The Rock” did for strangers over the course of 5 days 16 years ago is amazing – so amazing that on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 many of the passengers returned to say thank you. Together they had raised 1 million dollars for a Gander scholarship fund benefiting the children of the folks who did so much and asked for nothing in return.
They opened up their schools as hospitality centers; they opened up their homes and hearts. The owners of stores told the people responsible for feeding, housing, clothing these wayward travelers, “Take what you need.” (The passengers didn’t have access to their luggage, for fear there were explosives hidden away in the hold of the planes.) The drop-ins came from over 100 countries and many didn’t speak English. The community reached out to find out who spoke other languages, who knew other customs, how they could accommodate the dietary needs of Orthodox Jews and provide prayer space for Muslim guests.
The title “Come From Away” is how Canadians describe someone who’s “not from here.” But the people of Gander did not treat the unexpected drop-ins as “Bennies” – they welcomed them as family, with no advance warning, no preparations made, and from the initial look of it, too few resources to share. But like the lunch of loaves and fishes, as people recognized the need they came forward with their little, which became a lot, and was enough to welcome the world.
The show, for all its beauty, doesn’t gloss over the very real prejudices and fears that stalked the townspeople and passengers in those days after the 9/11 attacks. One of the characters is a Muslim chef whose offer to help in the kitchen is initially rebuffed because of the fear he’ll poison the other diners. Passengers from Africa are frightened to get off the schoolbus that transported them from the tarmac to the local Salvation Army post because the members of the Salvation Army have dusted off their uniforms to look official and the Africans associate them with military who would imprison or kill them. Gay passengers keep their identity to themselves for the first few days, fearful that the Canadians will reject and refuse to help them – until they learn how many of the townspeople and their relatives are themselves gay.
“Come From Away” is a chiaroscuro of darkness and light, evil deeds contrasted with acts of surpassing goodness, the fragility of humanity showcased. One of the songs is St. Francis’ Prayer, “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.” The setting is a church where a mother prays for the safety of her NYC firefighter son; her desperate messages to him have all gone to voicemail….
Today’s epistle is from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13:
9The commandments are summed up in this word: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” … 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
We don’t have to know our neighbors in order to love them. The people of Gander didn’t know the people who landed in their airport unannounced. But they cared for them. In Scripture love is action, not emotion. It’s not a warm fuzzy feeling; it’s a helpful doing. This is why Jesus can command us to love even our enemies. Here’s a bit of advice C.S. Lewis gave in his classic, Mere Christianity:
Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.1
The co-authors of “Come From Away” are a husband and wife team, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, both of whom were in NY City on 9/11. They went to Gander for that 10th anniversary reunion, stayed a month, and spoke to many townspeople as well as returning passengers. In an interview Hein reflected, “There’s never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness and reaching out to strangers. One of the passengers said: ‘We were all refugees coming off those planes.’ And right now in Newfoundland they are welcoming in Syrian refugees.” The compassion the community showed in the wake of 9/11 was not a flash-in-the-pan kind of thing. It was a solid expression of who those people are – of who we would like to be. We have opportunities each day, as individuals and families, as a faith family, as a community, as a nation, to love our neighbor. God grant us grace to obey our Lord’s command, to follow the example of the good folks in Gander, and to take the advice of the poet Rumi:
With life as short
as a half taken breath,
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham
1C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952). Reprinted in The English Spirit, ed. Paul Handley (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987), p. 217.