Speaking the same language

Our family attended Come From Away at the Washington Pavilion last month. This award-winning Broadway musical tells the story of 7,000 people stranded in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, after all flights into the US were grounded on September 11, 2001. We were surprised at how exhilarating and heartwarming it was – it packed an emotional punch as we felt the confusion and fear in the residents of Gander and the people stranded far from home. But it also had hilarious moments, and it exuded hope in the power of kindness and hospitality even in our darkest moments.

I had forgotten how quickly distrust between people mounted after 9/11. With the dust of 20 years blanketing my memories, I thought it had taken weeks or even months for people of different ethnic backgrounds to experience hostility against them. Come From Away blew off that dust when it showed a crowd of angry people yelling at Ali, the Middle Eastern chef from Egypt. Only a day or two into being stranded in Gander, Ali was speaking Arabic to his family back home when people in line to use the phone started accusing him: “Are you celebrating this?” “Why doesn’t he speak English?” “Are you telling your Muslim friends where to bomb next?” “Go back where you came from!”

This production did not ignore the uglier reactions people had in response to 9/11.

But it also showed equally powerfully people’s ability to respond with decency and compassion. Balancing the scene where Ali encountered hatred, there’s a scene where Garth, a bus driver from Gander, was driving Muhumuza and other passengers on a flight from Africa to one of the shelters for those who were stranded. None of Garth’s passengers could speak English and, in the darkness of night, Muhumuza and the others mistook the Salvation Army camp for a military complex. They were terrified and refused to get off the bus. How would Garth explain to them that they were safe and would be cared for there?

While trying to figure out how to put his passengers at ease, Garth noticed Muhumuza’s wife was clutching a Bible and asked to see it. Although he couldn’t read Swahili, Garth knew their Bible would have the same number system as his English Bible. Finding the spot he was looking for, Garth gave the Bible back to Muhumuza and his wife, pointing and saying, “Look! Philippians 4:6! ‘Be anxious for nothing. Be anxious for nothing.’”

And that’s how Garth and Muhumuza started speaking the same language.

It was a beautiful scene of one person finding a creative way to care for another person very different than himself, someone with a foreign culture and language. And, perhaps completely unintentional on the part of the writers, it was a beautiful reminder of the Gospel’s ongoing power to unite people and dispel fear even in the darkest moments.

I wrote this for this week’s Perspectives column
in The Rock Valley Bee.

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