Grenfell One Year On – The Christian Response to Disaster

Perhaps the faith response to what has been described as one of post-war Britain’s worst tragedies can be divided into two categories – the practical and the theological.

The practical first. The Guardian was far from being the only newspaper to draw attention to the “well-handled” Christian reaction to the disaster and the fact that many saw faith groups as filling the vacuum left by the council and other officials. 

It recently quoted a report by the Theos Christian think-tank which said the reason why the response was so strong was because faith groups were “rooted in the community, had physical space to put at the disposal of local residents and were committed to long-term pastoral support”.

In the chaos of the fire and its aftermath, “the role of the diverse faith groups in the community stood out. Churches, mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras all stepped up to the plate, responding practically, emotionally and spiritually to a moment of pain and confusion,” the Theos report said.

The report identified nine distinct faith groups and denominations and at least 15 centres, such as places of worship and volunteer centres, in the immediate vicinity of Grenfell Tower. In the first three days after the fire, at least 6,000 people were fed by faith organisations.

Some faith leaders opened their places of worship assuming people would come to pray or seek sanctuary, not realising they would become a hub for donations and volunteers.

Local clergy made themselves available on the streets in the days immediately after the fire, offering to listen and pray with local people. The speed with which faith centres opened their doors, the practical actions in distributing supplies and the pastoral response were key to the effectiveness of the faith response, the report said.

The After Grenfell: The FaithGroups’ Response report says that he four main ways that faith groups responded to the disaster were:

  • Opening the doors of faith centres  – and sometimes homes — to people affected
  • Establishing groups to meet the immediate needs of clothes, food, and water
  • Providing space for people to pray and reflect
  • Offering pastoral care; and offering long-term faith-sensitive support, including professional counselling, to victims and those affected

So if the practical response to the disaster to the response was admirable, what about the theological response? How could a loving God allow so much suffering?

“When we Christians start feeling that way, though, we actually stand in a long line of faithful who have challenged God when facing pain, grief, and suffering – Job, the Psalmist, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, C.S. Lewis, to name but a few,” Christian theologian and author Ttrystan Owain Hughes wrote in a blog.

“Even Jesus himself cried out on the cross, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ –  such a response is natural in light of our personal relationship with our Father.”

God is not threatened or intimidated by our prayers of protest and our honest cries of confusion. Huges argues, in fact, as John Bunyan wrote, “the best prayers have often more groans than words”.

“None of us, whether we are people of faith or not, have any answers to explain, in the words of Dostoevsky, “the human tears with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre,” he wrote.

“In facing suffering, we cannot explain away or justify its apparent senselessness. But, in asking where God is in such tragedy, we are led to relate suffering to love and hope, as St Paul does in Romans 5 (see verses 1-11).”

Jones goes on to argue that he has come to realise that “God’s kingdom does not simply break through in our stirring moments – in beautiful walks in the countryside, uplifting pieces of music, and heartening moments with our friends and family”.

“Instead, God’s kingdom also breaks through the dust, dirt, and despair of our suffering, and our call as Christians at times of tragedy is to focus our gaze through our tears to recognise glimpses of his love.”

Jones goes on to quote a friend who lives opposite Grenfell Tower who had this to say in the aftermath of last year’s tragedy: “There is a place for God in this. He is in the hearts of those who feel empty and want to do something, he is with those who give money or time to help, he is with us as we weep and mourn.

“God knows about grief, loss, pain, abandonment, and fear, and, because of this, he stands alongside those who cry out in distress and agony.

“In very real and practical terms, he does this through the love and compassion of those who are made in his image. As Teresa of Avila put it: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

“Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.”