Grenfell 3rd Anniversary Reflection
Location: Virtual service of commemoration
The reflection from the Bishop of Kensington at the virtual service of commemoration.
‘I can’t breathe.
These chilling words of George Floyd, while he was pinned to a Minneapolis pavement by a white police officer, while the breath slowly drained out of him have echoed around the world over the past few weeks. They are also the words of many Coronavirus victims, struggling to breathe through respirators or ventilators. They were also the words of many of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire three years ago today as they fought their way through thick black smoke, some making their way to safety, some not being so fortunate.
In the book of Genesis, we read how God breathed into the human race, giving us the gift of life. That gift is precious. It is not ours to extinguish, and every time a human life is taken away by our deliberate malice, our negligence or even our lack of care for each other, we all feel a wound, we are all impoverished.
Today, three years on, we remember the fire at Grenfell Tower. Some might wonder why we do. After three years, isn’t it time to move on? To look to the future? To put it behind us? Yet we do want to remember today. It’s not because remembering is easy. In fact for those most deeply affected by the fire, remembering is hard. It means re-living painful memories of that dreadful night, memories of loved ones who are no longer with us, the feelings of abandonment, of the injustices of not having been listened to.
Remembering is difficult. But it is better than forgetting. Memory is one of the ways in which we deal with the past and the future. It is one of the ways we allow the past to find a measure of healing and also to imagine a better future.
And so today we remember.
We remember each precious life lost on that night. We remember them by name. Each one was loved, each was special. Their families and friends cannot forget and while they remember every day, today we can especially stand with them and recall each person whose name has been read out today. Tonight at 6pm, church bells all over London, at St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral and in many other neighbourhoods across our city will introduce two minutes silence by ringing 72 times once for each life lost in Grenfell Tower. If you can, listen and let each ring remind you of the scale of this tragedy. At this time when we can’t gather together in public, it is a way all of London can be reminded of what happened three years ago. It is way for all of us to stand with the bereaved, the survivors and this local community, to mourn and to remember those who died.
We remember those living in tower blocks around the country still covered in cladding like the kind that covered Grenfell Tower. We remember those having to post watches at night in their tower blocks in case a fire breaks out, people who live in fear of something like Grenfell happening to them.
We remember those who have been in this for the long haul, those friends who have stuck with the Grenfell community, offering holidays for families, cooking meals for the community in lockdown, long hours of listening, the doctors, the counsellors, the teachers, the local faith leaders, all those who have walked silently through the streets here on the 14th of every month.
We remember the outpouring of compassion at the time of the fire. We remember the people that came from all over London, all over the country to do what they could to help. We remember how just for a few days, the barriers that so often stand between us came down and people forgot their own needs to reach out to help their neighbours.
We remember the cry for Justice. We remember the warnings not heeded, the mistakes made, the way that building was allowed to become a tinder box, covered in flammable cladding that was a silent danger to everyone living in it. We remember the lack of fairness – the way in which all these tragedies, Grenfell, Coronavirus, discrimination seems to hit people of colour more than others. And we pray that when the Public Inquiry resumes, it will bring a measure of healing and justice to those who cannot rest until it comes.
We remember all this, because to forget is to risk not learning the lessons that Grenfell can teach us. It is to miss the opportunity to change.
Because justice is not retribution or revenge. It is putting things right.
It is ensuring no-one has to go to sleep anxious about waking up to a fire because they are living in a building surrounded by flammable cladding.
It is building houses that are safe, affordable and good to live in.
It is building trust again between local communities and those who govern them by stronger relationships, proper listening and promises kept.
It is ensuring the voices of those who don’t normally get listened to are heard properly.
It is building a society where the colour of your skin does not determine the opportunities you get in life or the way you are treated by those in authority.
It is a society where we are quick to listen, slow to get angry with each other, kind to ourselves and our neighbours.
God has buried the seeds of his justice deep within the soil of injustice. It will come out one day, as surely as a flower grows in the spring and blossoms in the summer. It may take time but it will surely come. It will take patience, perseverance, a clear sense of direction as you continue on that journey.
Lastly, we remember something that can sustain us on this path. Our reading earlier reminded us that “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ” – that love is there for each of us, regardless of our age, our background, the colour of our skin, whatever life has done to us, or what we may have done. and that love can in the long term bring healing and hope.
And we remember that we do not walk this road alone. Our reading from the Psalms said this:
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
May his rod and staff – his presence – continue to comfort you on every step of this way.