Grenfell Tower: a vicar’s reflection, by Fr James Heard, June 2017

Grenfell Tower: a vicar’s reflection
My phone buzzed into action early on the morning of Wednesday 14th June. I glanced at the screen: Grenfell Tower, North Kensington, fire, many feared dead. This was only a mile away from my parishes in central Kensington.

I was stunned and it took a little time for me to take on the enormity of the tragedy, but it was very clear people were suffering and in need of support, so I reorganised my diary and went straight to St Clement’s church and community centre, just a few minutes walk from ‘the tower’. Gathered there were those who lived on the periphery of the tower, evacuated because of the danger posed by the fire.

I was stunned by what I saw. In the middle of this tragedy, the response of the local community, of those of different faiths and none, was extraordinary. Doctors and nurses came to volunteer, a RBKC housing help and a ‘missing person’ desk was set up, the Samaritans offered a listening ear. Someone had even set up a ‘phone charging’ desk. And filling the church was supplies of food, water, bedding and an avalanche of clothes. All the local supermarkets had contributed, as had many individuals. Many simply sat in silence, numbed with shock by what they had experienced. We set up a prayer room: a place of calm and peace amidst the hustle and bustle of activity.

The deanery response was to ask local churches to gather between 6-10 volunteers for two hour slots. I signed up my church for the 9-11pm slot for that first day and sent out an email to my community. In the following two hours I received over 30 calls, text messages, and emails offering to volunteer. We arrived at 9pm and immediately set about helping: serving food at 9.19pm when the Ramadan fast ended, sorting through the mountain of clothes, shoes, toys. We arranged a makeshift foodbank as well as prepared for the following day’s breakfast.

At 10.00pm a group of young Muslims from East London arrived after their Ramadan prayers with a huge van load to add to the collection of clothes, bedding, food, water, nappies, toiletries, even dog food. ‘Dog food? I questioned. Sure enough, five minutes later a resident came in with her dog asking for dog food.

By 10.30pm, I was allowed through the cordoned off area where, along with several priests, we spent time with the fire, police and ambulance services, obviously exhausted and many traumatized.

Fr Peter Wolton, curate at our church, described his experience on that first night: ‘The response really was amazing. People had come from across London and beyond; a family had driven from Croydon, another arrived from Harrow, a lady from Derby and a retired couple of Red Cross volunteers from Horsham. A Sikh family needed to be housed and an illness for one of them meant Westway Sports Centre was unsuitable. I put them in touch with the dedicated line at RBKC and within twenty minutes they told me a solution had been found.’

One lady I met described her surprise when seeing a group of young teenage boys – usually on their bikes and looking rather intimidating – parking their bikes and asking how they could help. I put them to work sorting out clothes. ‘It’s not very glamorous work but it’s really important’ I told them. A man came in with his piggy-bank: ‘I’ve been saving up for my summer holiday,’ he said, ‘but felt I had to help. Here it is, it’s about £500’.

This support continued in the following days. Available the whole time were drinks as well as halal, vegan and other food. I took a break one lunchtime to have some and was rather stunned by the quality of such large quantities of food. One of the volunteers told me: ‘Oh, that was prepared by Stella McCartney’s chef. And we have a team from a Jamie Oliver restaurant cooking supper this evening!’

The Bishop of Kensington encouraged clergy to be present and available to chat to people in the area around the tower. I met one lady who had paused on her bicycle with the blackened tower in view, smoke still bellowing. She was sobbing. She described that she remembered seeing the tower being built in 1974 and had friends there, unaccounted for. She was given the chance to purchase her council home, nearby the tower, which she did. ‘But it could easily have been in that tower’, she said.

Revd Gabby Thomas describes her experience. ‘As I wandered about, locals grabbed my arm often accompanied by the words, “Excuse me, vicar” and began to share stories and ask me what church I was from. One man whose friend had died in the fire wanted to show me the photographs he has taken of his harrowing night… Another friend joined him and began to tell me about the sound of bodies falling from the tower, and how one man had fallen to the ground under the weight of catching a baby from a great height.’

Along with other clergy from across London, we stopped and listened to these harrowing stories with little other response than simply to share tears together.

A week on, the community gathered today (Thursday, 22 June) for an interfaith gathering in solidarity with the victims and survivors of Grenfell Tower. A Sikh representative spoke movingly, expressing that grief has no colour, creed, nationality, gender, or background.

In the coming months we must stand together and commit ourselves to the rebuilding of a community, of providing counselling and support for those deeply traumatised, and a commitment to conversion, the transformation of ourselves and our society into a more just and compassionate place.
Fr James


Holland Park Benefice