After Grenfell – how faith groups responded to the tragedy

12 June 2018

Notting Hill Methodist Church. Photo taken with permission.

“In many ways, the faith response was an example of the community ministering to itself, rather than being helped by well-meaning outsiders.” Elizabeth Oldfield, Director of Theos, in the foreword to ‘After Grenfell’

Helping churches increase their disaster preparedness and resilience by sharing examples of good practice is a core element of the Anglican Alliance’s work. We have recently shared learning and stories from Zimbabwe, Canada and Puerto Rico and have further materials here. Here, we share some key findings from a new study of how faith communities responded to a tragedy in the UK.

On June 14th 2017 a horrific fire ripped through Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey housing block in North Kensington in London. Seventy two people died, hundreds were made homeless and many more – potentially thousands – left traumatised by the fire and its aftermath. The “agony and trauma of its victims was compounded by the apparent indifference and disorganization that ensued. In the chaos, the role of the diverse faith groups in the community stood out.”

These words are from the report ‘After Grenfell’, a study of how faith groups responded to the Grenfell fire produced by Theos, a religion and society think tank. The report describes the key role played by local faith groups in the days, weeks and months after the fire and highlights some important learning that can help inform how faith groups prepare for, and respond to, future disasters. At the heart of this learning is the understanding that faith groups are deeply embedded in their communities with wide-ranging networks, a physical presence, a history of engagement and a profound understanding of people’s needs.

Part 1 of the report looks at how faith groups responded to the fire and describes a varied, fast and effective response both as the tragedy unfolded and in the weeks and months that followed. At least 15 faith communities from the immediate vicinity were involved, including Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, people from Pentecostal, charismatic, and Free Churches, representatives of Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh groups, and local and national faith-based charities.

“Aid included acting as evacuation areas, receiving, sorting and distributing donations, offering accommodation, drawing up lists of the missing, supporting emergency services, patrolling the cordon, providing counselling and supporting survivors seeking housing. In the first three days alone at least 6000 people were fed by a range of faith communities. This is alongside the more expected provision of space for prayer and reflection and hosting interfaith services of memorial and lament.” The faith centres were quick to open their doors and are still involved in offering long-term support, for example offering faith-sensitive counselling, children’s holiday camps and campaign support.

Faith leaders described how they opened their buildings as places of prayer, rest and sanctuary, thinking this would be how they could best be of help, but they soon also became hubs for donations and volunteers seeking to help. One church leader told the author of the report how, having been woken by a colleague just before 3am, he “went straight to the church, turned on the lights, lit the altar candles, and asked where the evacuation site was… I went [there] to see what was going on, and by the time we got back to the church there was at first a trickle, then a steady flow of [local] residents and volunteers, about 70 residents and 15 volunteers by 4.30am. People were bringing supplies of tea, breakfast, fruit, biscuits, and blankets. By 5.30am it was a full-scale operation.”

The report highlights how the provision of food was central to the response of many faith groups – a natural consequence of the value placed on hospitality in different traditions.

Pastoral care was also a natural response. 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”.

Most of the faith leaders interviewed said Grenfell has had a significant impact on their ministry. Their response has been long term. One leader said, “Grenfell now takes up 95% of my day job. Work is much busier, but it is an honour to stand with the Grenfell community. We can’t just leave them now, when so many are still living in hotels and undergoing severe mental health issues, such as suicidal depression or PTSD. We can’t have a ‘full stop’ to our support of them, just because the immediate crisis has passed. Our support must and will be ongoing for the foreseeable future.”

Part 2 of the report explores what enabled faith communities to respond and highlights three key factors: being trusted, having physical spaces and having the capacity to be flexible.

“The faith groups were able to respond in the way they did because they were trusted. They were embedded in the communities they served” (report’s emphasis). The faith groups were known to be long-standing institutions with a history of community engagement. Their leaders lived in the community and were known. Their involvement was not dependent on funding. They had extensive local knowledge and had developed extensive networks over many years. They would be there for the long haul.

“These faith groups were committed, dedicated to both their faith and their community. This resulted in a valuable combination: of having invested sufficiently in their localities to the effect that they owned and ran buildings and facilities and also of preaching and practicing an ethos of openness and hospitality to those in need, which meant they could open those buildings and use those facilities for those who needed them. As a result, they were able to respond to the needs of the moment: not perfectly perhaps – as noted, there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ response to such an event – but rapidly, compassionately and holistically.”

The third reason identified for the efficacy of the faith groups’ response was “the balance of professional protocols already in place with the willingness and capacity to be flexible when necessary”. All the faith centres had appropriately-trained staff with DBS (criminal record) checks in place meaning they could use them and “avoid placing ‘spontaneous volunteers’ in potentially dangerous situations. Moreover, through their established protocols, many faith centres were also able to ensure their staff and networks received suitable debriefing and pastoral care after the initial crisis phase.” But as well as being professional, they were also able to be flexible. As one person put it, “We could think on our feet, and weren’t tied to having to sign things off all the time.”

Part 3 of the report details the lessons learnt. Again, three are highlighted: be prepared, be visible, be flexible.

Preparation: the interviewees recommended that faith groups develop and practise their emergency responses so that they could be confident about their ability to respond in a crisis. Practical ways of doing this included maintaining a volunteer data base, making sure volunteers were trained and qualified, and carrying out a skills audit ahead of time so volunteers can be deployed in the most effective way. The value of developing and strengthening networks, relationships and friendships across the faith groups was also highlighted. One mosque had “been in partnership with a nearby synagogue, which had hosted an iftar (the evening meal for breaking the Ramadan fast) a couple of weeks before the fire, and would later go on to partner with them in holding children’s holiday camps for the Grenfell community.”

Visibility: uniforms and identity markers (such as clerical collars) matter. This is both for practicality – being easily identifiable – but also for establishing presence and solidarity.

Flexibility: there is a need to be flexible in responding to a crisis. Those responding on the ground need to be willing and able to identify which are the most pressing needs and to be adaptable. But flexibility is needed more widely too – in how others respond – and those on the ground need to be able to state specifically and firmly what is, and what is not, needed. They need to be “able politely to discourage the delivery of unnecessary donations, to avoid being overwhelmed and hindered in the provision of aid.”

Financial donations were the most helpful response, taking up no space and allowing a variety of use, in contrast to physical donations of clothing, food and toiletries, which “only serve certain needs, and take a huge amount of effort to manage and sort”. Interviewees also greatly valued offers of help that met specific needs such as for administrative support or pastoral assistance.

Please continue to pray for everyone affected by the Grenfell fire including all the faith leaders, who continue to minister and care for their community.

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