Heroic Hospitality

Recently, we took our daughters to go see the play, Come From Away. It tells the story of how the small town of Gander, Newfoundland came to the aid of over 7,000 passengers whose planes were forced to land as American airspace was closed in the minutes after the 9/11 attacks. They provided not only lodging, food, and clothes, but also comfort, compassion and love to the strangers who doubled the size of the town’s population for almost a week.  

While 9/11 is unquestionably one of our nation’s most tragic events, this play captures a lesser told aspect of the events that followed. When people came to the aid of others, bringing kindness and charity and help to anyone who needed it.

Sadly, I knew people who died that day and others, who while spared by fate or circumstance, were traumatized by the events that day.

I lived and worked close enough to the towers that I was displaced from my home for weeks.  So I spent the majority of that first day surrounded by strangers all searching for some way to help someone else. With some I shared a blood type and a city bus that escorted us “universal donors” from one hospital to another. Later with others, I shared a desire to volunteer and a seat in a high school auditorium.

The American Red Cross asked those of us who had experience conducting interviews to interview everyone else – to better assess the skills that might later be useful.  Who spoke what languages? Who had construction experience? Who could provide grief counseling? I have no idea how many or how long I interviewed. But I still recall clearly the longing I saw in each face, a shared desire, a desperate need, to help in any possible way.

As I watched Come From Away, the first tear I shed was not of sadness but of appreciation.  Watching the community come together anticipating the needs of these thousands of strangers brought me back to my time in that auditorium and on that bus.

I remembered seeing the eyes of the bus driver, who looked back at us from his rear view mirror.  Saying that “I was never prouder to be a New Yorker than I am right now driving this bus.”

The same day we saw Come From Away, a wonderful display of people coming together, I watched six people with professed shared values, tear each other apart on the Democratic Debate stage. It was a sad embodiment of a process ripe with infighting and short on unity. One marked more by daily desperate pleas for our cash than by calls to act compassionately toward one another.  

The title of the play refers to a Canadian phrase to describe people not from Newfoundland. It is a tell of our times, that there have been recent discussions to ban the term “come from away” as some may construe it as divisive and unwelcoming. This is a far cry from a phrase one reviewer used to describe the play, calling it “a portrait of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure.” 

Which begs this question, does “heroic hospitality” or coming together require extraordinary pressure or national tragedy?  Or can we find ways to bravely show compassion for each other in our daily lives. 

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