Whatever it takes, we have to stay local.
“The Council collapsed. Groups like St Helen’s Church, The Clement James Centre, and The Westway Centre, ‘became’ the local government, as people lost trust in the Council. But people don’t lose trust suddenly, it was lost before.” A fascinating report on the Grenfell tower tragedy was published this week by Theos, the religious and society think tank. It seems that one of the key lessons from this calamitous tower fire this time last year was the remarkable response of the varied faith communities. The report identified some nine distinct faith groups and denominations and at least 15 centres situated near the Tower. In the first three days after the fire, they took responsibility for caring for at least 6,000 people. This was in stark contrast, it would seem, to the response of the public authorities. One of those interviewed for the report observed “Surely it’s for the state to step in in a crisis; churches and other faith groups can only support, not lead the effort themselves.” All this was in stark contrast to the high expectations for public service as the 1960’s drew to a close. I can remember; I was there. For some wholly unexplained reason and to my complete surprise, in February 1971 I found myself employed as an (unqualified) child care officer for Liverpool City Council Social Services Dept. But not for long. Within a few months I was rebranded as a generic social worker, similarly unqualified. For following the Seebohm report of 1968 all the various social care services – primarily children’s, mental health and old people’s welfare departments, were subsumed into one single social services department. There was, I recall, a huge surge of optimism for what was now possible in this brave new world. No longer would there be several welfare professionals visiting one household but one single generic social worker. On paper it seemed an ideal outcome. This was accompanied by a general distrust of what my senior social worker called “do gooders” usually from local churches. These eager but untrained volunteers, meant well, of course but they were usually a liability, getting in the way of highly skilled social workers. How things have changed! Now we have a complete reversal as demonstrated by what happened at Grenfell. It was the churches and not the Council who came to the help of the distressed residents. As Elizabeth Oldfield, Director for Theos, writes in the introduction to the report” “In the chaos, 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.” These faith groups responded immediately, opening their doors to their buildings, even their homes, to those in need, even as early as 2.30 am. They were very soon providing the very basic needs of food, water and clothing along with emotional and pastoral support and prayer. As one faith leader described: ”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.” And such help has continued in longer-term support. All this makes heartening reading. So what was the secret? The answer, in a word (two actually) is parish ministry. As the Theos report explains: “Most of the faith groups’ leaders had been in post for at least five years, with most of the centres themselves having been present in the area for around 50-100 years.” And they were already working in the community in all manner of ways. They were known; they had a public profile. And more - the faith leaders lived in the community. As one such leader explained: “It’s our home, not just our workplace.” They were known, and more, they were trusted. Relationships and networks were already in place. Finally, the faith communities were able to offer something which we might simply take for granted: space. They had buildings which could be used right away. All this needs to be said loud and clear in our Anglican context as members commute increasingly long distance to their churches as regional centres and as vicars no longer live in their parishes. After all, the byline for the Church of England is “a Christian presence in every community.” This is how Jesus wants his church to operate, as salt and as light where we live. ‘You are the salt of the earth,” he tells us. ‘You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” So Jesus concludes: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16) Certainly the churches of Grenfell along with other faith groups demonstrated God’s love in action, offering hope for the future. Whatever it takes, we have to stay local. As one of the victims recalled: “It was the most horrific time. But the role of the volunteers and the people who came to help and support, showed me God’s grace amid the horror. And our ongoing work gives me hope that, whilst nothing can ever make it okay, from great trauma, we might one day find great healing.”