Small-town Faith Comes to Broadway in “Come From Away”

Small-town Faith Comes to Broadway in “Come From Away” March 18, 2017

The cast of COME FROM AWAY, photo by Matthew Murphy, 2017

Scene: a frightened man from Africa on a bus with his wife in rural Newfoundland, being taken to who-knows-where from a plane that landed far from its destination. They come to a camp full of people in military uniforms. The bus driver stops, and motions for the passengers to get off the bus. The man doesn’t move. He does not understand the bus driver’s language. He does not trust him. And then the bus driver points to the Bible that the man’s wife is clutching. She hands it to him nervously. He flips to Philippians and points at chapter 4, verse 6. “Be anxious for nothing.” This man is a Christian. These are friends. They are safe. Now they’re talking the same language.

Is this a scene from a far-fetched Christian novel? Nope – it really happened. And it is now a part of the new Broadway musical Come From Away, which tells the true story – sometimes using verbatim dialogue from the people who lived it – of how the residents of the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland welcomed 7,000 airline passengers who were forced to land there when U.S. airspace closed on 9/11.

The show is wonderful. It beautifully captures both the fear and anxiety of that terrible day, and the feeling of camaraderie and support that were born in its immediate aftermath. The show is by turns tense, funny (it had far more laughs than I expected), joyful, and sad. Ben Brantley captures the spirit well in his New York Times review, as does Johnny Oleksinki in his New York Post review.

What both of those reviewers – and most others – highlight is how vital the message of welcoming strangers is in today’s political climate. I think they’re right, but I also hope that conservatives aren’t turned off by an over-politicizing of the show. Despite what could be seen as some liberal leanings (e.g. focusing in part on the story of a gay couple, emphasizing multiculturalism and interfaith connections), the show is not really a political statement. If anything, it is a show that highlights the compassionate humanity of small-town folks who, if they were American, might be written off as close-minded red staters. These are the stereotypes that some of the “come-from-away” passengers have to overcome.

It’s not a religious show, but I was especially impressed by the way the show handled faith. As it turns out, those uniformed people who the African man saw from the bus were Salvation Army workers (“We rarely use ’em, but everyone’s dusted off their Salvation Army uniforms to welcome these people!”). The show makes it clear that communities of faith, like the Salvation Army and other local churches, played a key role in the efforts to house and feed the influx of guests. They weren’t the only ones, of course – but I count it as praiseworthy that the show’s writers didn’t shy away from acknowledging their part.

There’s another beautiful scene, where a Newfoundlander brings an American to church and they add their voices to the Prayer of St. Francis, which is being sung by a man who had lost touch with his childhood faith. The music of that hymn merges with the singing of “Oseh Shalom,” a Jewish Hebrew prayer for peace, and then prayers of different people of faith. I don’t subscribe to the notion that all religions are the same, but I do believe that all grasp something of the truth and that all have goodness in them – and this song highlights the bonds shared by people of faith, even if that faith differs.

This doesn’t mean the show ignores the very real religious tensions that were exacerbated on 9/11. A Muslim passenger finds sympathy and compassion from a few people, but even as the planes take off after five days on the ground, most of the other passengers continue to view him with suspicion. To me, the realism there – and the unspoken reality that some sort of religion did inspire the terrorists of 9/11 – only serves the reinforce the truth of the more positive side, that there is a way in which we are all bound together by faith, that there is something believers have in common with everyone else who is looking for meaning outside of themselves.

I could go on and on about the show, but since I’m a minister rather than a theatre critic, I’ll stop there. What I hope is that conservatives and liberals alike, religious and non-religious, will see this show. Or, since going to Broadway shows isn’t exactly an easy option for most people, at least that they will listen to the soundtrack (be forewarned that it does contain some profanity). There is a divide in our country between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, Evangelicals and Progressive Christians. But the divide that worries me more is a growing divide I see between people who think the other side is still worth listening to and talking to, and people who think the time for dialogue is done. I place myself firmly in the former camp, and I hope that if nothing else, this show helps remind all of us of the common humanity we share – even with people who are as different from us as a small-town Catholic schoolteacher is from a Muslim world-class chef, as a Texan mother is from an English businessman, as a born and bred Newfoundlander is from a come-from-away.

UPDATE: “Oseh Shalom” is sung by a rabbi who landed with one of the planes, and it turns out that if anything that part of the true story is more dramatic than it is in the show. Amazing.

UPDATE 2: The writers, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, talk about the religious aspects of the show at 25:08 in this Guggenheim Works & Process video:

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  • Denis O’Brien

    As a born and bred Newfoundlander I can say that it is not a place without prejudice, especially in times past between the various Christian denominations. It is also a place that has had some very serious hard times. Once an independent nation after the impact of WWI and the Depression it slide into Bankruptcy and by 1949 became the 10th Province of Canada. Unlike most of Canada and the United States, historically the interior of the island part of the province, as well as the larger continental part, Labrador, were little developed or populated. Hundreds of towns and villages were all in sight of the ocean. The majority of the population derived their livelihoods from the fishery. It is a place were all know the power of the sea, of the unforgiving nature of its power. To paraphrase the Newfoundland poet EJ Pratt,
    “It took the sea a thousand years to etch the these lines upon these cliffs,
    But one night to place these wrinkles on this woman’s face”.
    For 500 years people have looked to the sea and seen what is has done, is a single breath. These sea does not consider a person’s faith, race or gender, it doesn’t favour the rich over the poor, nor the good, nor the bad. It is not the first time that Newfoundland communities have helped “Come From Aways”. During the WWII, when the US vessels the Pulloux and the Truxton ran aground, the men and boys of St.Lawrence descended steep cliffs to rescue US sailors. The women bathed and nursed hypothermic men. One sailor who was rescued was forever changed by his experience. Lanier Phillips was a mess attendant, a Black man who at first feared for his life when awoke to find a White woman massaging his limbs and washing bunker oil off his body. Having grown up in Georgia, he was sure he would be lynched when people realized that he was Black. Not only was he not harmed but was housed by that woman’s family until transport was arranged back to base. He was treated with respect by White people for the first time in his life. In times on distress on the sea in a ship or over the sea in a plane, the reaction is the same, all hands in action. We all are dependent upon each other.
    Today I noted a report from Newfoundland, the town of Lewisport, which was one of the Gander area communities which took in the “plane people” after 911. A grandmother ,a recent refugee from Syria, was joined this week by her son and his family who also fled Syria.

    • Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Also, thanks for bringing up the reality of prejudice between denominations. I was pastor of a relatively unknown denomination in a small northern town near the BC / Alberta border, and I know that in the past congregants had faced suspicion and prejudice for their “unusual” faith. The thing that impressed me about that town – and I suspect it’s similar in Newfoundland – was the way that in a crisis people would put aside those disagreements and focus on doing what needed to be done. That’s the spirit I see and love in “Come From Away.”