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Churches and faith groups reacted to Grenfell fire with speed and compassion, says thinktank

04 June 2018


Tributes to the victims of the Grenfell fire left outside Notting Hill Methodist Church in London, last year. The church and St Clement’s Notting Dale were among the first to respond to the tragedy

Tributes to the victims of the Grenfell fire left outside Notting Hill Methodist Church in London, last year. The church and St Clement’s Notting Dale...

FAITH Groups responded “rapidly, compassionately and holistically” to the Grenfell Tower fire, a new report by Theos says.

Churches and other places of worship should practise regularly emergency responses to tragedies before crises occur, which the report calls “preparation in peacetime”.

The report, After Grenfell: The faith groups’ response, published by Theos, a Christian thinktank, on Monday, examines how faith groups in North Kensington, London, reacted to the disaster. It says that at least 15 faith centres in the vicinity of Grenfell Tower helped.

Seventy-two people were confirmed to have died in a fire at Grenfell Tower, west London, in June last year (News, 16, 23 June 2017), which makes it the “worst fire since the Second World War”, the report says.

The report says that the four main ways that faith groups responded to the disaster were: opening the doors of faith centres — and sometimes homes — to people affected; groups helping to meet the immediate needs of clothes, food, and water; providing space for people to pray and reflect, and offering pastoral care; and offering long-term faith-sensitive support, including professional counselling, to victims and those affected.

It also says that lessons learnt from the disaster for faith groups include preparing for the worst by practising responses and using networks well; being visible in the community; and being flexible.

The author of the report, Amy Plender, interviewed over 30 people to build a picture of the response to the fire.

Showing the quick response of faith groups, one faith leader said: “I checked the news straight away, and the fire was the top headline on the BBC website. I was [at my church] in five minutes, and we were open by 9 a.m.”

A church leader interviewed said that he was woken by a colleague at 3 a.m. and “went straight to the church, turned on the lights, lit the altar candles, and asked where the evacuation site was”.

He continued: “I went to the Rugby Portobello Trust to see what was going on, and by the time we got back to the church there was at first a trickle, then a steady flow of residents and volunteers, about 70 residents and 15 volunteers by 4.30 a.m. People were bringing supplies of tea, breakfast, fruit, biscuits, and blankets. By 5.30 a.m. it was a full-scale operation.”

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, faith groups quickly realised that their places of worship were to be used as “pop-up donation sites”.

One interviewee said: “I thought on the morning [of the fire] that the best way our
church could serve would be to comfort the survivors, and offer emotional and spiritual support, and we did do that; but after three hours of helping at my friend’s church, when I came back, to my shock, there was a roadblock outside our church.

“The road was completely blocked with people trying to get to our church, and we were flooded with donations and volunteers.”

Food was an immediate concern to those displaced by the fire. Fortunately, the Muslim community was able to help out as it was Ramadan.

Another interviewee said: “We always have dates and bottles of water, especially in Ramadan when people have been fasting.

“We were able to give these to people in need straight away, and as during Ramadan we host a nightly Iftar and we have full-scale catering facilities, we were able to feed all the extra volunteers and survivors, both on the evening of 14 June and afterwards. We served hundreds of people a day for several weeks.”

As well as offering physical support and the donations, faith groups also offered “pastoral first-aid”, the report says.

A faith leader said: “Local clergy made themselves available on the streets in the days immediately after the fire, offering to listen and pray with local people, if they wanted to. People really needed to talk.”

One interviewee gave an example of how their church has helped the community around Grenfell in the long-term: “Through the generosity of our congregation and the surrounding community, we have been able to maintain our presence in the Grenfell community by putting on special events, such as a Christmas dinner in late December.

“We invited people of all faiths from the Grenfell community, to enjoy a meal provided by a local hotel, with decorations provided by a top-end London florist, and even live reindeer outside, loaned from an entertainment company, for the kids to meet!

“Our choir sang carols, and we did silver service for the meal. The look on their faces when they came in was amazing: you could just see their shoulders relax just for a little while, as they understood that we had pulled this all together to make them feel special, cared for, and loved.”

The report says that interviewees raised possible safeguarding issues because of the large number of spontaneous volunteers, and also because of “grotesque disaster tourists”, who came to the area to take “selfies” rather than to help.

The lesson to learn from this, the study says, is to build and maintain a database of volunteers, so that people who can be trusted and relied on are easily contactable and faith centres do not get overcrowded with unnecessary spontaneous volunteers.

One interviewee said that there were people “who were not there to help, but for their own ends”; another interviewee said there were people ““blagging their way in [to a relief centre], pretending to be a [registered] volunteer”, or even a survivor.

A faith leader said: “It’s a disaster zone, not a plaything. We need strong cordons to keep certain people out.”

Other lessons learnt from Grenfell included how to keep a presence in the area, which included advice about being recognisable. One leader said that a “clerical collar [is] a must for disasters and serious pastoral situations”; another said: “If you’re wearing a dog collar, people naturally come up and talk to you.”

The report says “preparation in peacetime” [for a future disaster] could “take a form similar to school fire drills, with an emphasis on everyone involved knowing their role”.

Elizabeth Oldfield, director of Theos, says in the foreword: “Grenfell was a horrendous tragedy, which ended over 70 lives, damaged hundreds more, and shocked millions.

“Yet, while it revealed signs of vulnerability, inequality and even indifference, it also showed a community that could respond with real courage and commitment. Much of that response was seen in the faith groups’ efforts. We hope that this report will raise the public profile of that work and offer valuable lessons for the future.”

Yvette Williams, of Justice4Grenfell, said of the report: “I hope it will stand as a timely insight for the future. The community has leant on many local faith leaders for strength and support following the disaster. All faith leaders should recognise the fantastic response they gave to the fire.”

The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, speaking at an event on Wednesday said that it would take more than justice to resolve “anything fundamental”.

Dr Tomlin said: “If the Inquiry produces its results, culprits are identified and perhaps given prison sentences, that would satisfy a certain need for justice, or even revenge, but it still would not resolve anything fundamental.

“If we allocate blame, punish the guilty, and then carry on as before, then there is no guarantee that something like this will not happen again, or even more, we will perpetuate the deeper conditions and attitudes that led us to this point. . .

“The kind of repentance that Jesus calls for, and indeed the Grenfell Tower fire calls for is deeper - a radical look at the way we live together in our society.”

The full address by Dr Tomlin can be read here.

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