A FEW minutes’ walk from the wreckage of Grenfell Tower — engulfed in flames in the early hours of last Wednesday — lies the church of St Clement’s, Notting Dale.
Though modest in size, the church was a place of strength and refuge for some of the hundreds of people forced to abandon their homes last 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 went 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, 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 of last week, speaking in the gardens of St Clement’s.
PAVisit: the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, with the Vicar of St Clement’s, the Revd Dr Alan Everett
The Area Dean, the Revd Mark O’Donoghue, joined a group of volunteers who rang 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.”
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.
“There are masses of donations. 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.”
Dozens of volunteers spent the day sorting clothes into piles, and pairing up shoes. At the back, by the font, there was a huge stockpile of bottled water and non-perishable food. It was a hive of activity, but with the minimum of fuss.
Dr Everett said: “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.”
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 of last week 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.”
Dr Tomlin contacted the Senior Chaplain to the Metropolitan Police, 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 . . . 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.”
PASympathisers: the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, with Jeremy Corbyn
Dr Tomlin relayed the public’s appreciation to the firefighters. “It was a privilege for the clergy to be there and say on behalf of everyone: ‘we are hugely grateful for what you do.’”
He later returned to St Clement’s to help the clergy offering pastoral care. He also chaperoned a “low-key” visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury in the afternoon.
“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.”
Mr O’Donoghue said: “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, he admitted, he had wept. “It hit me almost as I walked in the door. You suddenly realise that you have everything, whereas the people you have spent the day with have nothing. They have lost everything.”
PAPleas: posters asking for information about missing persons