Faith organisations are acting as mediators between authorities and people affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, as well as providing practical help and emotional support.
Churches and mosques have stepped in to the widening gulf between the community and officials, and some have seen their congregations grow.
The al-Manaar mosque and cultural heritage centre is offering assistance to the bereaved, survivors and evacuees regardless of their faith or background, although the majority of the tower’s residents were believed to be Muslim.
“We’re trying to be a bridge, supporting the community but also engaging the authorities. It’s a matter of trust, and we’re trusted by both sides,” said Abdurahman Sayed, the mosque’s chief executive.
Graham Tomlin, the Anglican bishop of Kensington, said the issue of trust was central to the response of faith organisations. “After the fire, local churches and mosques were very visible on the ground, and that helped to win a degree of trust that isn’t there for the council or the government.”
Churches had deep local roots and were uninterested in political advantage, he said. “In our very individualistic society, we need something between the state and people on the ground.” However, rebuilding trust in north Kensington would take a long time and “careful determination”.
St Clement’s, an Anglican church close to the tower, has been part of efforts to rehabilitate the local community since it opened its doors at 3am on the night of the fire. It has also been a focus for visiting politicians, including Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan, and has liaised between victims of the fire and the authorities. Last Wednesday it hosted a chaotic and angry meeting between residents and officials.
Members of the Grenfell Tower community attend a public meeting with representatives of the Gold Command structure at St Clement’s church in west London, four weeks after the fire. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA
At the Notting Hill Methodist church, superintendent minister Mike Long is now spending 95% of his time on issues relating to Grenfell. “We’re working a lot harder, and some things have been pushed down the priority list. Worship still happens, but all our services have a strong Grenfell element and will continue to do so.”
He said a significant number of people who did not regard themselves as religious had turned to the church over the past month. “Some people just want a space for reflection, or want someone to voice what they’re thinking. We allow a different sense of perspective. Sometimes people need simply to pause.”
His role had been “changed totally” by the fire and its aftermath. “My job is now much more outward-looking. It’s about keeping the doors open, about being a community resource.”
Until a month ago he rarely wore a dog collar, but he put one on when he was woken at 4.30am on the night of the fire, “and I’ve worn it every day since. Now my role is much more public and I need to be identifiable.”
The Rev Sean Doherty, a lecturer in Christian ethics who lives 250 metres from the tower, said North Kensington was the most religious – and most religiously diverse – place he had lived.
“The churches and faith organisations are embedded in the community. The connections were already there rather than needing to be built from scratch.”
Religious leaders were accustomed to dealing with grief, he said. “But this is on a bigger scale, magnified and shared. There is individual grief but also community grief.”
Like other faith centres, the al-Manaar mosque was overwhelmed with items donated by the public in the first few days after the fire. “Now the emergency situation is calmer, our main concern is around practical and emotional support,” said Sayed.
It is arranging funerals and hosting daily clinics with legal advisers, bereavement counsellors, acupuncturists, massage therapists and other professionals, as well as offering prayers and quiet spaces for reflection.
The number of people coming to the mosque for iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, doubled from 250 or 300 to 500 to 600 in the 10 days between the fire and Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month.
The Methodist church has also seen its congregation increase since the fire from about 50 each Sunday to about 70.