by Rev Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Diocese of Leeds
It took some courage for the Prime Minister to make her apology on Tuesday, for the nation was truly shell-shocked by the Grenfell disaster, and Mrs May’s summary of the situation was a statement we could all agree with.
It’s taken me a full week to find myself able to watch the Panorama film documentation of the Grenfell disaster. As I wept, it was impossible not to imagine waking to thick black smoked, or worse still, an unendurable, inescapable heat. The palpable shock and grief of the survivors interviewed was devastating as photographs of young, happy children, wisened old men, mothers, grandmothers and vibrant young adults were shared in the vain hope that somehow the fire didn’t reach them or impede their attempts to escape the towering inferno. Who will ever forget the disabled brother told to remain in his flat with a damp towel by the door on the 22nd floor, or his distraught sister?
Yet it wasn’t the scene of the destruction and loss of human life that disturbed me most. I was completely unprepared to see hordes of people on the streets with carrier bags full of clothes, boxes of nappies as shouts of “perishable food is about to arrive, we got manpower but we need women to sort it” reverberating through the crowds. Hundreds of people spilling out of their homes and businesses to bring what they could, do what they could, share all they had in some cases, with those who had lost everything but the clothes they stood up in. It was a beautiful sight, people pulling together in the face of human tragedy, a truly empathic response towards those in dire need. What disturbed me, however, was the fact that after waking up to a living hell, survivors were left to fend for themselves, find somewhere to sleep, get up the next morning to nothing but chaos, loss, grief, confusion, the true horror of losing loved ones, all one’s wordly goods and every memory in every form, whether it be photograph, trinket or song. All irretrievable lost to nothing but the vagaries of the human memory and nobody there to say, ‘here we are. This is what we are providing for you, this is where you need to go, this is where you can bathe, be clothed, fed, sleep.’ It was nothing short of chaos and had an ‘every man for himself’ feel about it. Nothing was properly planned or organised and I simply fail to believe that there is no disaster plan for every borough of our land never mind our capital city. Why wasn’t it activated for these people? Why was it left to Church Halls, mosques and the local neighbourhood to wade in and sort it out for themselves?
A few days later (yes, days later, I still find that hard to believe) the £5million fund from central government with each survivor receiving an immediate £5000 was met with the derision it deserves. Perhaps a £5000 payout seems generous to a person living on £72.40 per week but even a minor whiplash victim is better compensated. As has been rightly pointed out, a far lesser sum would have ensured the building was fire-proof in the first place. What the survivors needed was a roof over their head, a plan for permanent accommodation and a proper support system in place, not cash, nor to be left wandering around the streets relying upon the charity of their neighbours, wonderful as it was. It must have been bewildering to find oneself so utterly adrift. It was one of the rare occasions when the word ‘aftermath’ rose to its full height, squared its shoulders and looked us all in the face.
Aside from the political and organisational questions raised, is the question most being bandied about is ‘where was God in this?’ The Christian faith speaks of a God who is amidst everyone, including alongside those who mourn, those who lie in the burns unit fighting for their lives and those who are traumatised survivors.
Jesus identifies with us in our human suffering most acutely as he hangs from the cross, vilified by the powers that be, turned upon by His own, crucified for doing nothing but good – the Innocent hung out to dry by the high and mighty, religious and political, easy to sacrifice, to silence, or so it seemed. Yet I would suggest that God is most visible in those who gave from the little that they have, those who chose vocations that put their own lives at risk in order to save others; those who place ethical decisions above parsimonious politicking, for God is in these inhabited, lived out words, attributed to Jesus Himself: ‘”Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25_34-40)
Says it all really – doesn’t it?