Last night my family went to see – as some of you have done – Come from Away at the Canberra Theatre, the remarkable true story of what happened in Gander, Newfoundland, on September 11, 2001, when 38 planes were forced to land in Canadian landscape and this town of 11,000 people accommodated 7,000 stranded passengers.
It’s the second time I’ve seen the show and this time around, I had tears in my eyes from the opening number. The detail, however, I picked up at this second viewing, was the story Kevin tells (one of the ‘two Kevins’, the gay couple) that on every anniversary of September 11 now, he gives his employees $100 each – and the day off – asking them to do something kind for someone else. In an interview I watched with the two Kevins, they described the actions of the people of Gander as, “something out of the Bible…I was a stranger and you welcomed me”! Kevin’s response reminded me of Sermon #3 from Sunday – you must give in order to receive, and the story about the woman whose response to every disappointment in life is to give, to just give, and the incredible character she has developed as a result of giving – rather than becoming closed off and bitter.
But reading more about the town of Gander this morning, what also comes through is that they have made a habit of giving; that they have been, as Jesus says in Luke 16:10, faithful in little things – little acts of kindness and generosity – and because of this they were also able to be faithful in big things – big acts of kindness and generosity.
According to an article published by the Canadian Broadcasting Commission in September 2021, Gandar’s response to caring for thousands of stranded passengers did not start from scratch.
In 1997 Newfoundland asked all municipalities to create emergency strategies involving the Red Cross, the Department of Social Services, the hospital, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Salvation Army. These groups got together and developed a series of plans for different emergency scenarios which were instrumental on September 11.
And Gandar was previous experience of for refugees.
In previous decades, transatlantic flights often stopped to refuel at Gandar Airport. Flights from Soviet bloc countries were especially likely to refuel there while en route to Cuba. “There were as many as 32 flights per week landing in Gander from these Soviet bloc countries,” says Mac Moss, who has written a book on Gandar’s response, “Sometimes the only people left aboard the aircraft were the flight crew.… Everyone else would defect.”
At first, the provincial Department of Social Services placed these individuals in hotels while they waited for their refugee hearings. But before long, the hotels just couldn’t accommodate everyone — so the department searched the province for schools, churches, town halls, fire halls and anywhere else that could host those claiming asylum. “So, when 9/11 happened,” Mac Moss says, “They knew what was in the geographic area that could accommodate thousands of people.”
Betty Mullaly-Moulton, who worked for the provincial government during the 1980s and early 1990s, said the department’s experience co-ordinating with the airport and Department of Immigration, and their organization of accommodation, food, medical support and interpretation services — directly translated to the 9/11 response. “I think it’s important for people to recognize … there was a community capacity that was built over decades that allowed us to not only welcome and provide kindness and caring and social integration, but also to co-ordinate a large-scale response in a very short time frame,” Mullaly-Moulton says.
What is it we can do right now – to be faithful in small ways – that will enable us to be faithful in big ways when the need arises? How can we welcome, accept, care, support and love people – as a church – right now that will enable us to respond to new challenges – greater challenges – in the years ahead?
These stories encourage us to continue to give. For, as we read two weeks ago, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Grace and peace to all of you – and through you to others!
PS Please join us for ‘chilli con carne con congregation’ this Sunday – straight after church in the manse garden! There’ll be a hot version, a mild version and a vegetarian version! And the weather – unlike today, looks like it will be mostly sunny!