Come from Away: Resurrection and Hope in Gander, Newfoundland

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"Above Gander." Photo: ayphella/flickr

Do you remember where you were on Sept. 11, 2001? Most everyone has a story to tell about where they were on that day when the Twin Towers—centrepieces of New York City’s World Trade Center and once the tallest buildings in the world—came crashing down. Come from Away tells a distinctively Canadian story about how 38 planes were diverted from U.S. airspace to land in Gander, N.L. Suddenly the population of this small Canadian city swelled as townsfolk needed to take care of almost 7,000 international travelers.

Premiering in New York in 2017, Come from Away has won theatrical awards around the world, and deservedly so. It is a beautifully crafted theatre piece employing all the best conventions of musical theatre, and it tells a story of resurrection and hope.

There are only 12 actors on a practically bare stage—six women and six men; together with a Celtic band, they tell the story of how the people of Gander responded to the presence of their unexpected international visitors. Each actor plays several roles. Remarkably you have no difficulty seeing the differences in character through the simplest of devices—donning a hat here, a different accent there—the story is told both of the people of Gander and the dislocated passengers. What begins as a nightmare for them all turns out to be a deep experience of connection and community as the remarkable and generous hospitality of Gander transforms strangers into friends.

The show moves briskly, clocking in at about 90 minutes, without an intermission. It’s the simplest of sets—a stage that revolves, and some kitchen chairs and tables. And while there is some spoken dialogue, most of the play is sung. There are so many distinctive Canadian references—Tim Horton’s, Molson beer and Shoppers Drug Mart.

But the whole world is represented through the diversity of the passengers. There’s an African American woman whose son is a firefighter in New York, and she tries to learn of his whereabouts through phone calls. The pilot of one of the planes is a woman who sings about her journey into the once all-male world of airplane pilots. There’s a Muslim man, a rabbi, a straight couple who fall in love and a gay couple whose relationship is strained by the stress of the situation. In one of the most moving moments, many of the passengers and folks from Gander find their way into a church. One of the characters has had a song in his mind, the hymn “Make me a Channel of Your Peace” (words often attributed to St. Francis). When he comes into the church, that’s the song being sung. In beautiful counterpoint, the rabbi begins singing a chant from the Jewish tradition, the Muslim man unfolds his prayer rug and begins to pray—and the message is clear: the practice of prayer transcends any one religious tradition. The music soars as each passenger and each townsperson turns towards the divine, seeking strength in a time of great trial.

And strength is given to each as through the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of this time a community is formed: it is like the Good Friday of September 11th is eclipsed by their experience of a new life, a glimpse of the hope of resurrection. Gratitude was expressed through generosity: the stranded Gander passengers set up a scholarship fund that has received more than $2 million in donations.

These are the fruits of resurrection faith: hope in the midst of despair, community in the face of fragmentation and generosity in response to loving service. Come from Away celebrates this hope and community and generosity in delightful and moving ways. It’s great to be reminded that any community, no matter how large or small, can be a place where the grace and love of God can be expressed through the people who call it home.

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Peter Elliott
The Very Rev. Peter Elliott is adjunct faculty at Vancouver School of Theology. From 1994 to 2019 he served as dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.

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