“Come From Away” is a musical filled with a surprising amount of joy despite the events that prompted the story. The play is based on the hospitality shown to strangers in a little town in Newfoundland, Canada, called Gander. In the days following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, these Newfoundlanders found their town nearly double in population as 38 planes were diverted and forced to land in the nearby airport.
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure how a musical set in the wake of 9/11 would work. It hardly seemed like a time that warranted a big dance number. And yet, as my wife and I watched the show play out this past weekend, I was struck by how beautifully the story balanced pain with joy, despair with hope.
A balance we all grapple with each and every day.
There’s one song about halfway through the show called “Prayer.” One of the characters has been trying to name the tune that has been haunting his dreams. Turns out, it’s the melody to “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.” What follows in the show is a medley of pleas for peace from a variety of religious traditions.
It’s not hard to see why a cry for peace was necessary in the wake of September 11. Perhaps you remember making one yourself. It’s not hard to see now, in this very moment in 2023, countless instances around the world that demand our cry for peace: mass shootings and war, the killing of unarmed Black folks and school children, domestic abuse and violence done to God’s creation.
We cry for peace – and yet it rarely feels like enough.
What struck me most about this scene in “Come From Away” was that these particular cries for peace were not focused on external violence. Rather, the characters on stage were grappling with their own inner turmoil: fear, guilt and uncertainty. They were anxious to hear from loved ones, to return home, to feel as though they were making a difference.
And yet, these 38 planes, these 7,000 people, were stranded in Gander – “somewhere in the middle of nowhere,” to borrow a few more lyrics. There was nothing obvious for them to do in the shadow of such violence. What act of peace was available?
Peace is a funny thing. It’s tempting to think of it in terms of great diplomatic endeavors and ceasefires, the catching of the thrown fist and the throwing down of deadly weapons. But peace really does begin somewhere in the middle of nowhere; we have to calm our troubled minds, the turmoil in our souls. We have to settle the storm within before we can be a channel of peace for others.
Peace does not begin on the global stage; it begins in the quiet stillness of our inner lives.
And so, turning our attention, as the creators and actors of “Come From Away” did, to the inner need for peace in the middle of a story that stands in the shadow of a very external act of violence is nothing short of brilliant.
We can only love our neighbor as well as we love ourself.
The show’s finale is brief, but we do see these characters return to their homes and a world in desperate need of peace. Each character relates a small act of peace – a scholarship, funds for random acts of kindness, transcontinental moves for love – that, taken together, begin to build a new world.
In the end, the suffering, pain and sorrow caused by violence is not simply washed away by peace. When the foundation is cracked, you can’t simply sweep up the dust and begin again.
No, I think instead part of the work of peacebuilding is the descent into those cracks, the deep knowledge gained over what has been lost. Then begins the careful, meticulous, loving repairs to heal those wounds, those divisions – and the realization that the very rough and cracked fissure that such sorrow has left behind can become the place from which something new is birthed.
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian.