“Truly adversity has afflicted me and You are Most Merciful of all who show mercy.” (Surah 21: Verse 83)
I have just returned home after an emotional visit to the Westway Sports Centre in London. Very close to the smouldering remains of the Grenfell Tower that just 48 hours ago turned into an inferno, killing (so far) an unknown number of people and destroying the lives of all the families that lived there. It’s not a sports facility at the moment. On approaching it, I had visions of scenes reminiscent of the Mad Max movies, a tableaus that wouldn’t have been out of place in War of the Worlds. Crowds of people carrying boxes, suitcase and carrier bags. Others handing out ‘missing’ posters with pictures of elderly grandfathers, mothers and children. Groups of people outside Notting Hill Methodist church were handing out food as I approached and inviting people to a prayer at 8.00pm. Others were sticking posters on walls, writing heart-breaking messages to loved ones, tying flowers to railings or just standing and quietly sobbing.
After manoeuvring the many police check points, Haris Iqbal, Head of Programmes for Penny Appeal and the main person coordinating the work of charity on the ground, talked me through what had been happening. I could have been in a Syrian refugee camp. Tables piled high with food and water; croissants, loaves of bread, tins of beans, biscuits, crisps, bananas, apples, cereals – everything you could possibly think of had been donated by local residents and people from across the country who had driven down purely to help those in need. Boxes were piled high against walls containing clothes, towels and bedding. Another table was being set up by a volunteer with the essentials we give little thought to – toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper, tissues, nappies, wipes, tampons – everything anyone could possibly need was there. Someone had already thought about what people might require. People who had left their flats in the middle of the night, with their lives and just the clothes they stood in. Further down were piles of shoes, handbags and yet more clothes. And all the time volunteers in orange Penny Appeal shirts were running around carrying things, organising, moving things and just trying to make life for these individuals whose lives had been devastated, a little bit more comfortable. The main sports hall was covered in mattresses, blankets, sleeping bags and pillows. Small huddles of people stood around, some weeping. One elderly woman had just been informed her husband had died. Words cannot adequately describe what I saw this evening. All day long I have been hearing news about more bodies being found, the number who have perished very likely being in triple figures and friends of friends hearing they have lost a loved one and I keep asking – why God? Why have You allowed this to happen? Why have You allowed such pain and misery to be inflicted on this group of people? Men, women, children, the elderly – individuals who will have gone to bed on Tuesday night fully expecting to wake up in the morning. Why wouldn’t you? They will have gone to bed preparing for the next day, all sorts of dreams and aspirations for the days to come. Maybe they were planning a summer holiday or what to wear to work? Perhaps they were thinking about how they were going to spend the weekend or had promised to take their children to the cinema on Friday evening if they just went to bed early. Not one of them would have expected their lives to change within a few hours. Why didn’t you stop it?
But this disaster didn’t happen because of You. Was this a man-made tragedy, human error or just an accident? No doubt in the weeks and months to come, the public enquiry will uncover how and why this disaster was allowed in happen, in the richest borough, in the richest city, in one of the richest countries in the world, in the 21st Century.
As I drove up to the area, I saw the most amazing properties, fantastic houses, wonderful shopping centres and lavish restaurants. Yet the richest people I saw today were those volunteers on the ground who had been on their feet for near on 36 hours. People like Haris, Haroon and the young girl taking paracetamol but determined to carry on because she was needed. These were the wealthiest people I saw today. Their kindness and compassion, their patience and fortitude, their courage and resilience made them the richest people in Kensington and Chelsea this evening. Where were you God when all of this was happening? You were right there, in the eyes, the hearts the hands, feet and faces of each and everyone of those individuals. You were there with the fightfighters rescuing those trapped, returning time and time again, without a thought to their own safety. And You will be with those injured, bereaved and left destitute over the difficult days, weeks and months ahead.
My grateful thanks go to all those who have been involved in the traumatic events over the last few days. The emergency services, firefighters, police, paramedics, nurses, doctors and volunteers. A special thanks to Haris and Penny Appeal who I saw in action today. Many of us wish we were closer to help and support you. You have shown us all what it means to be human.