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After Grenfell: what we can learn from the faith groups’ response

After Grenfell: what we can learn from the faith groups’ response

Amy Plender outlines her findings in our new report, After Grenfell: the Faith Groups’ response.

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The Grenfell Tower fire was, in terms of lives lost, the worst fire in Britain since the Second World War.  Britain woke up on the sunny morning of 14th June 2017 to find that emergency services had battled through the night to contain the fire and evacuate the tower block’s residents.  As the crisis unfolded, there were reports of severe overcrowding at relief centres, untenable media intrusion, riots.

Into this traumatic scene, stepped the faith groups – or rather, they were there already.  From the earliest hours, the press covered the faith groups’ response.  Our new report, published this week, looks beyond the headlines at what the faith groups did, how they were able to do it, and what we can all learn from their response.  Their immediate response was unique in the relief effort, in that it was practical, pastoral, and spiritual: young Muslim men, awake in the early hours to observe their Ramadan prayers and fasting, delivering food and water to faith centres.  These faith centres – churches, mosques, and temples – opening their doors within hours of the first 999 calls, and acting as relief and evacuation centres, particularly when the official relief centres had been compromised by journalists posing as volunteers or even survivors to gain access to the ‘Grenfell refugees’.  Faith leaders with ‘Memoranda of Understanding’ with the emergency services (a formal agreement between certain charities or faith groups and the emergency services to provide pastoral support those involved in a major crisis, including members of the public and emergency personnel) being called upon to provide a listening ear to those in need and offering prayer when it was wanted, and faith centres setting up space for prayer and reflection for those of all faiths and none.

After the fire had been put out, the press crews departed, and the official police investigation got under way, faith groups remained.  Naturally they did – it’s their home too.  In the words of one interviewee, “I made it very clear to my congregation, that when the journalists and emergency services go, we’ll still be here.”  Their longer term work includes memorial services, most notably the six month anniversary service at St Paul’s, a powerful image of the scale of the disaster at a national monument, but also local services, flying under the news radar, for those in the community.  Several faith centres are running faith–sensitive counselling and psychotherapy from accredited therapists, either free or heavily subsidised, for those in the Grenfell community.  There are support groups, children’s holiday camps, Bible or Qur’an study groups, gardening projects, trips to the seaside, administrative support to navigate the bureaucracy of the rehousing process, moral support and solidarity on the monthly silent marches – the list goes on. 

Our interviewees told me that such a response has been possible through three main routes: the legacy of trust the community had in the faith groups, having the physical space of halls or storage facilities ready to be used, and faith groups’ ability to cut through red tape and to be flexible.

There is much to learn from such a response.  We would hope that nothing on the same scale would ever happen again, but in a world where disasters do happen, Grenfell teaches us to be prepared – to practise one’s response, getting to know the local community, developing relationships across cultural and religious divides; to be visible – wearing dogcollars, high–vis jackets, and other identity markers, as a means of showing both one’s availability to help and one’s solidarity with the community; and to be flexible – responding to the needs of the community as and when they present, such as gathering headscarves and long dresses for Muslim women who might need them, and politely and firmly declining the offer of donations before a centre reaches saturation point.

There are no easy answers to Grenfell.  The lessons we can learn from the Grenfell community’s response are not a silver lining to a horrific trauma, but hard won wisdom on what faith groups can offer society today.  As one interviewee told me “I met a local resident who was an avowed atheist, who usually avoided faith groups whenever he could, but after Grenfell he said, ‘had it not been for the churches, we would have been utterly abandoned.’”

At our joint launch of our report and Rev Dr Alan Everett’s book After the Fire: Finding Words for Grenfell, we’ll discuss the role of faith groups in Britain today, and how Grenfell continues to shape the lives of those left behind.  Do join us if you can. 

Image: prayer wall outside Latymer Community Church, courtesy of Latymer Community Church

Amy Plender

Amy Plender

Amy joined Theos in August 2017, having previously worked with London–based and international non–profit organisations, and in English and Scottish print journalism. She holds an MA in Divinity and an MTh from the University of Edinburgh. Research areas include the theological responses to suffering and mental health, theology and the arts, liturgical practice, and interfaith dialogue.

Posted 5 June 2018

Church, faith, Multiculturalism, Social Action

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