‘These people have nothing. They have lost everything’

by
15 June 2017

Hattie Williams visited the scene of the Grenfell Tower fire to see the remarkable relief efforts being co-ordinated by the churches

Hattie Williams/Church Times

Enough for now: signs outside St Clement’s, Notting Dale

Enough for now: signs outside St Clement’s, Notting Dale

A FEW minutes’ walk from the still smouldering wreckage of Grenfell Tower — engulfed in flames in the early hours of Wednesday — lies the church of St Clement’s, Notting Dale.

Though modest in size, the church has been a place of strength and refuge for some of the hundreds of people forced to abandon their homes this week after a fire ripped through the 24-storey tower block, gutting the 120 flats inside.

The Vicar, the Revd Dr Alan Everett, was awoken at 2.45 a.m. with news of the fire, which had broken out an hour earlier. He dashed straight to the church. “I did a quick scout around the area to see whether I could find out what was going on, but concluded that the best thing to do was to come back to the church. The lights were on, the doors were open, and almost immediately people started coming in.”

Food supplies and donations poured in by the hour. The church provided sustenance to service crews, volunteers, and dazed members of the community, including several bereft residents of Grenfell Tower.

The church address was given as a collection point after putting out an urgent call for donations. As news of the fire hit social media, hundreds of deliveries of bottles of water, toiletries, food, blankets, and clothes began to arrive.

“By 8 a.m. we were overflowing with supplies,” Dr Everett recalled on Thursday, speaking in the gardens of St Clement’s. “Most of yesterday was an overwhelming experience, with people demonstrating extraordinary community support and a wonderful level of response.

“Today is a different picture. Like most centres, we cannot take on any more supplies: we are completely overwhelmed, and what we are now facing is people getting the news about the people they have lost.”

The Area Dean, the Revd Mark O’Donoghue, joined a group of volunteers who rang round the local shops and supermarkets, which donated the first supplies. He also established a register for missing persons, and a deanery rota of volunteers. “As the day wore on, we were getting more organised.”

People of all sorts were involved, including Sikhs and Muslims, he said. “It was the most amazing contrast of wonderful humanity and awful tragedy.”Hattie Williams/Church TimesCovering the floor: relief supplies for local residents and emergency-service workers

When asked to describe the public response, the Associate Vicar of St Clement’s, the Revd Mary Clarke, became overwhelmed with emotion. “It is just incredible. This is a very special part of London — the diversity, and our carnival every year — and the people are extraordinary.

“There are masses of donations. There are loads more at St James’s, as well, which will come this way. But now the volunteers are sorting the clothes into boxes because, at the minute, people haven’t got anywhere to keep them. They obviously need them, but not yet.”

The altar, pews, and floor of St Clement’s are now covered in boxes. Dozens of volunteers spent the day sorting clothes into piles, and pairing up shoes. At the back, by the font, there is a huge stockpile of bottled water and non-perishable food. It is a hive of activity, but with the minimum of fuss.

Once the boxes have been sorted and removed, the church will be used for prayer once more. In the mean time, a dedicated Christian prayer space has been set up in one of its outbuildings, manned by a team of clerics and Samaritans, and there is a separate space for Muslims. Tables and chairs have been set up in the patio garden at the back of the church where volunteers are serving teas, coffees, and hot food for lunch and supper.

There is look of quiet shock on most faces. One elderly woman in a wheelchair is being looked after by one of the “response pastors” — identified by their bright blue jackets and hats. The pastor asks her gently about her family. It is unclear whether she was a resident of the tower, but it seems that the trauma of the previous night has taken its toll.

Dr Everett said: “It is very important that we use the right level of professional support to talk to people. It can never be done by one person. We are in the early stages, which are largely about extreme, raw grief: crisis mode. The need is going to continue for months. People will need trauma counselling.”

He expressed concern for the dozens of people evacuated from Grenfell Tower who need to register with Kensington and Chelsea Council for emergency housing.

 

THE Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, has been in the thick of the response to the fire. He received a tweet at 6 a.m. on Wednesday from a radio station asking for a comment on the situation. It was the first he had heard of the news. “I quickly decided to cancel the day’s activities and came down here to St Clement’s.”

Bishop Tomlin contacted the Senior Chaplain to the Metropolitan Police, the Revd Prebendary Jonathan Osborne, who put him in touch with the Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Ellie O’Connor. “I asked what we could do, and she said that we could spend some time with the emergency services during the day.

“I took a couple of clerics with me and spent much of the day at the base of the tower with the fire services, ambulance crews, and those who had the job of identifying and taking the bodies out of the building.

“They are extraordinary people, very professional, but obviously they saw some distressing things within the building: a really difficult place to be with the heat and water and the smoke and bodies that were clearly there.

“We talked and prayed with them. Many of those removing the bodies had been involved with the aftermath of the Manchester bombing and London Bridge incident. One of them told me that this was three once-in-a-lifetime events in a month — so it was stressful for them.”

Bishop Tomlin relayed the public’s appreciation to the firefighters. “Many of them, who have felt underappreciated and abandoned because of cuts to the fire service, were glad to hear that message. And, of course, the public couldn’t go under the cordon to talk to them; so it was a privilege for the clergy to be there and say on behalf of everyone: ‘we are hugely grateful for what you do.’”

Still smouldering: schoolchildren have been moved so that they don’t have to look at what is left of Grenfell Tower

He later returned to St Clement’s to help co-ordinate the clergy offering pastoral care. He also chaperoned a “low-key” visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury in the afternoon.

“Some of the people had been evacuated from the surrounding buildings and weren’t sure where they were going to be for the night, and were worried about missing friends and family.”

It is vital for the clergy to be a presence in times of tragedy, he said. “We managed to mobilise quite a lot of clerics from the surrounding areas in the diocese. Many are walking around the streets either here or at the other churches.

“There is something about having clergy around, not just their presence, but also being able to pray with people that reminds people, that there is something beyond this tragedy; that there is wider hope that there is a God who still loves you.

“St Clement’s and the Clement James Centre have done a fantastic job at being a centre for the community. We have a lot of grieving and distressed families around here, and it is hugely important for the Church to be visible.”

It was long-term process, he said. “Once the media scrum moves on to the next tragedy, the churches will still be here, committed to these areas, and will want to be involved in the longer-term restoration of lives, and dealing with the anger and the distress that is around.”

By lunchtime on Thursday, the press had gathered in earnest to await the arrival of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He was an hour late. “I think it may have angered people more than it helped, because he didn’t talk to those who were actually affected,” Mr O’Donoghue said.

The Labour Party is among those calling for an inquiry into the safety of Grenfell Tower. There are questions to be answered, the Bishop acknowledged. “The Church is not just involved in the relief effort: we want to say that the Church is appalled that this could happen in this century.”

 

IT HAS been almost two days since the fire broke out, but the smell of burnt lacquer hangs in the air and there are chunks of charred rock on the adjacent roads. Flecks of ash are occasionally seen floating in the hot summer sun.

People stop in the street to look at the blackened still smoking remains of Grenfell Tower and a few even go so far as to pose before it, smiling crudely. This type of voyeuristic behaviour has angered local residents. “Half of these people were not here before Wednesday and do not live here,” one complained to me. “This is people’s lives.”

But most of the people pouring through the streets want to help. On the tube to Latimer Road, one group carry large bags and suitcases packed with donations. They try to donate to police officers gathered behind cordons beside the station, but are redirected to dedicated collection points.

One of these is Latymer Community Church. The scene outside is chaotic, but there is business in the bustle. By lunchtime on Thursday, hordes of volunteers are packing, strapping, and moving boxes into vans to be stored until those made homeless by the fire are back on their feet.

Small groups of all backgrounds huddle together on the streets hugging and wiping away tears. And on the trees lining the usually quiet roads are pinned posters of missing loved ones.

Volunteers in orange jackets give bottles of water to the police and fire brigade on almost every corner. It is almost impossible to get to St Clement’s unless you know where you’re going, as many of the surrounding streets are cordoned off.

Distressed schoolchildren had to be moved from classrooms in nearby primary schools to avoid the sight of the blackened tower. One mother described the situation as “haunting”, and compared the aftermath to a Stephen Spielberg movie.

 

DEALING with tragedy and trauma is hard for the clergy, too. “A part of you goes into a mode where you just do what you have to do,” Bishop Tomlin says. “You have to take moments to pray to recognise that God is here and those simple prayers of ‘Lord, give me the words to say to this person.’

“Longer-term, for everyone involved, once it dies down you have to process what has taken place.”

Mr O’Donoghue said: “I saw the bright blue sky and burning building at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, and thought immediately of the twin towers and 9/11 — that contrast of a beautiful day and awful tragedy.

“They don’t prepare you for this in theological college. I was in the city in 7/7; so I was very conscious of the chaos that sets in after a terrorist attack. But this was different: it was raw grief, the type of which you see at funerals.

“We had to chat to people and realised some of the horror stories, which were sad beyond words. But it was punctuated by amazing acts of kindness and generosity.”

On his return home on Wednesday evening, Mr O’Donoghue admits to having wept. “It hit me almost as I walked in the door. I saw my wife and my kids, one of whom brought my supper out, and you suddenly realise that you have everything, whereas the people you have spent the day with have nothing. They have lost everything.”

 

A service of prayer for those affected by the fire is due to be held in St Peter’s, Notting Hill, at 6.30 p.m. tomorrow, Friday.

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