Saturday 3 December 2022. It was going to be a good day. A special day. It was a West End musical day!
My sister and I have a tradition that we refer to as “sister dates”. As a general rule, they consist of a meal together (Wagamama or Chinese takeaway typically) and then watching something together. Most recently, we’ve started going to musicals together. Saturday 3 December was our fourth musical and we saw Come From Away.
So what is it that means Come From Away deserves its own reflections? It is that it is true. Not only is the story true, though with some characters created from merging the stories of real people, but the experience we share through the story is true.
Long after I am gone, this story will be told, because it is about human kindness…Claude Elliott (Former Mayor of Gander) (Taken from the Come From Away UK programme)
On 9 September 2001, the world was shaken. What felt like the impossible happened: the United States of America was attacked on home turf. I can’t remember much of that day (I was nine years old) but it has shaped the world I grew up in more than anything else. However, the 10,000 residents of a small Newfoundland town and 6,500 people on board planes experienced something the rest of us could not. More than any community bar New York, the people of Gander and the ‘plane people’ had their lives turned upside down.
But unlike New York, and the wider world, 9/11 was more than a tragedy. The story of Gander is one of intense human kindness in the middle of darkness. That is why Come From Away is important; it tells a story that needs to be remembered.
Tell the stories
But what is so important about the story of Gander and the ‘plane people’? You could ask that of any true story that we have kept alive – the ones that have lasted in human memory and the ones that have been immortalised as a musical or film or book. My hypothesis is this: where we see hope or courage or love in the midst of darkness and destruction, we hang on to it. We need those reminders of what it means to love when the world is falling apart around us. They act as tiny lights in the darkness; without them, we would be living blind.
Like the story of Bonnie Harris. She worked in Gander’s animal shelter and realised that there were probably animals on the grounded planes. In total, there were 19 animals in the menagerie she ended up caring for, including dogs, cats, and two bonobos! But without Bonnie, those animals may well have been abandoned for five days.
Or how about the story of Hannah and Beulah? Hannah’s son was a New York firefighter and she spent her five days in Gander constantly trying to get news about him. Beulah, whose son was a firefighter too, did her best to distract her through trips and jokes. 18 years on, their friendship has stayed strong even as they’ve weathered sadness and loss.
Then there are the minor characters. The world-famous Muslim chef turfed out of the kitchen so a ladies’ church group could cook but was eventually allowed back in. The Africans who didn’t speak any English so the local bus drivers communicated via relevant Bible verses. The elderly Gander resident who, on hearing there was a Rabbi on one of the planes, finally told someone of his Jewish heritage after living a life of hiding his identity.
Stories that need remembering
These are the stories not only worth remembering but that need remembering. These are the stories that keep us human because they keep us connected. Come From Away is just one example of such a story. I think of my widowed great-great-grandmother taking her eight children by boat from British India to Canada and then back again to do what was best for her children in the early 1900s. Then there is Dame Maggie Smith and Chadwick Boseman, who gave everything to ensure their art was the best while battling cancer. What about those we read about in history books like William Wilberforce, James Stephen, and the Clapham Sect who led the campaign for the Abolition of the Slave Trade? Or the tale of Grace and William Darling, who rescued nine sailors from the North Sea in 1838?
These are the stories that give us hope. Sure, not all of them are stories of significance to the whole of humanity. Beyond my family, Epic Granny’s decision to take her children out of the extended family has had little impact on world history. For me, though, this story is everything because if she had stayed in Canada I wouldn’t exist. Epic Granny modeled what it means to put others – namely, her children – before her own needs and convenience. She chose the hard option twice because it was what was best for my great-grandmother and her seven siblings.
Come From Away tells the story of people who chose to do the hard thing. And how it was made harder because those who needed their help meant nothing to them – literal strangers. In that story, there is something of what makes a story worth remembering: choosing the hard things in order to love others, even to your own detriment. The lives of Gander’s residents were turned upside down when they helped the plane people yet they chose to do the best they could to make the lives of strangers easier for those few days. A story worth telling because in it we see the best of humanity in the hardest of times.
We need more stories that tell of humanity’s best during the hardest times. Apparently, we cannot escape that fact. I read Stephen Lawhead’s Taliesin again recently, where they talk of the coming ‘Dark Time’ and the need for great acts that will continue to be told during the darkness. Or in Guardians of the Galaxy Christmas Special, where Kraglin explains to Kevin Bacon how his films inspired Peter Quill (Star Lord) to be a hero.
“You Taught Him How To Be A Hero.”Kraglin to Kevin Bacon
Stories have the power to give us hope; that hope is more when the stories are true.
The story worth remembering
Hope in the dark. Choosing good even when it’s hard. Putting others ahead of yourself. These are the things that make a story worth remembering, worth telling, and worth hearing. Come From Away meets the criteria, as have so many other true stories from across continents and history.
What if there is one story – one true, good, and beautiful story – that is worth remembering more than any others? I personally believe there is and, if you have spent much time around Finding Chaya, you might be able to guess what it is.
I began nursing this article into existence throughout Advent and the Christmas season. It is hard to avoid Jesus during December – his name* is literally in the holiday. There is something in His story that persists, that we remember every year. It is the ultimate story of hope in the dark; proof that good can overcome evil even when it looks like evil has won.
At Candlemas, we remember the words of Simeon: “He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel”. Jesus is only a baby but these words will echo throughout the rest of the New Testament.
There are so many examples of how He did this. It was Jesus who shone a light on the religious elite of his day (conservative and progressive), revealing the true nature of God’s law. Jesus who treated women and children with respect that just did not exist. The same man who drove traders out of a worship area and who fed 4,000 non-Jews (aka Gentiles). His entire life is a story worth remembering.
“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”Jesus, Luke 24v46-47
Jesus’s greatest act goes beyond the kindness exhibited by the residents of Gander. It goes beyond the bravery of Grace and William Darling or the dedication of Maggie Smith and Chadwick Boseman. He gave up his life, dying in the most painful way ever designed by humankind, only to defeat death by rising back to fully-fleshed out life (Luke 24v36-49). And in doing so, He broke the power of sin and the consequence of death over humanity.
The story I will tell
When Come From Away hopefully comes to Oxford on tour, I will be dragging Mr FC there, along with any friends I can muster. I will recommend it to everyone. In a similar vein, I will share with my children the stories of Epic Granny and the women who descended from her. And I hope historians will keep the story of Grace and William Darling alive and that the legacies of Maggie Smith and Chadwick Boseman will endure.
But these are not the story I will tell from the rooftops. They are not the story I hold deepest in my heart, willing it to spill out into every conversation*.
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories… the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world…J.R.R. Tolkien (full quote here)
Yes, Tolkien was a devout Catholic. And he sums up perfectly why the Story of Jesus Christ is the story I will always tell. For it is the largest story that embraces everything a story is yet it was real, part of history and part of this real world. The same kindness shown by the folk of Gander, Jesus showed when He fed hungry Gentiles and saved the woman from being stoned; when He healed the centurion’s servant and when He gave Gentiles back their worship area (twice!). And that’s not all there is to His story but that’s a post for another day. (Or read a Gospel.)
Just as the writers of Come From Away found a story worthy of telling, in Jesus we find something worth telling. However, the story of Jesus is more than that of a man or even a group of men and women. It is the story of God coming among us, of light against the darkness, and of a sure and certain hope. And that is worth telling!
Over to you
What stories do you think need remembering? And why do they need remembering?
1*Well, technically Christ is Jesus’s title
2*I’m still working on making this a reality