Grenfell Tower - 2

These are strange sad days to be a vicar in west London. We have had the perfect storm, a minority government, terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower tragedy, with which to contend. The blackened tower stands etched on the horizon as a judgement on us all. The morning after the fire, when people escaped from the building itself many had only the clothes they stood up in - often simply nightclothes. There were different stages of shock among people, relief and worry for friends and neighbours. There was the dawning realisation that they had lost everything. There was anger at what they felt had been a known risk had been ignored and sidelined and had then proved to be a significant factor in the catastrophe.

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On the first Sunday after the fire I preached on the sending out of the 12 disciples. I talked about the fact that of the 12 disciples, John was the only one to die of old age. Judas committed suicide and the other 10 were all martyred. I told people that Christianity is a magnificent story; it is a triumphant story but it is not a happy story. My voice broke as I consecrated the bread and wine and we all wept together. One woman lit eleven candles, one for each of the children in her school that had died. 

In the week following the fire the different Faith group leaders gathered. People stood in silence and told each other their stories of the week that had passed. Church services were organised and prayer meetings were arranged. It was a story of grief, dignity, and courage. There soon came an air of unreality to the process. A backlog of [donated but still] unsorted clothes in the centres saw people scavenging piles of clothes and at points things took on the atmosphere of a Portobello Road market with young people trying on clothes and then putting them back to try and get a better fit. There were people wanting to take photos of the tower. Some even came wanting to take selfies.

I asked some young people, with whom I work, to have a minute of silence. They asked, "Do we have to?" It would have been the third occasion that they had been asked to do so in a short space of time. People were trumpeting their connections to the tower as a badge of honour. One young person said defiantly “my aunt’s boyfriend’s brother’s friend was the man with the fridge!”

The underlying truth, as shown up by Grenfell Tower, is that there is a gross inequality in the distribution of power within our society. Notting Hill is the most unequal corner of the most unequal city in the country. Half of the children in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – most of those living south of the Westway go to private schools, while a quarter (i.e. most of those in the north) live beneath the poverty line. It is also the most diverse borough in Britain with 52% of all residents born abroad.

We may have one-person one vote but people’s ability to get local and national government to respond depends on their access to power. One local man had said to me “We are a proud community. Give us the tools and we will sort things out ourselves”. He had spent two days looking with a father for his son before the father finally accepted that his son had died in the fire.

My prayer is that just as Hillsborough [1991] changed football stadiums, Zeebrugge [1987] changed travel on ferries, Grenfell will change housing across the country and this will transform our society. It would be lovely to think, says Danny Kruger, a local social activist, that out of the rubble of the tower a new social order may emerge in which an equal partnership between statutory authorities, local people and voluntary sector organizations will create strong local communities and ensure that the poor and vulnerable within our society need never be disadvantaged.

It is the role of the Church to seek the welfare of the city says Jeremiah [29:7]. The local church is the only public body in the community that consciously and deliberately gathers together different, genders, ages, race and class. Meeting together in the name of Christ people are able to reverse the damaging effects of social, political and economic inequality.

Three cheers for St Clement’s, Notting Dale that opened the church at 3am and by 7am, had a fully stocked breakfast bar, with volunteers organising themselves into different teams. Latymer Community Church  have set up a designated fund for those who want to give to people affected by the disaster. Churches were in place as the fire broke out and will be there still, long after the disaster relief has gone.