The evening of June 13th was an evening like any other in London – it had been a hot day, and the sun went down on a calm, gentle, night. That evening people went out for a meal, went to bed, stayed up talking, doing what people do in London on a warm summer’s evening. Yet that night was to change the lives of so many here in this Cathedral today.
Since then, it has been a long six months. Many here grieve for loved ones, precious people who perished on that dreadful night. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts & uncles, cousins, sons and daughters. Today would have been the first birthday of one of the youngest victims of the fire. Many still struggle with their memories. There are still far too many living in hotels, in a kind of limbo, not sure of what the future holds. There are so many unresolved issues and questions, and it’s hard to live with uncertainty.
Yet in the following days, in the middle of that unimaginable tragedy, we saw something extraordinary. People started coming from all over London, all over the UK & even beyond, bringing offers of help - water, toys, nappies, blankets, food. Churches, mosques, community centres opened their doors as people came with suitcases of clothes they had collected from their homes and driven across the country to deliver.
The emergency services worked tirelessly – ambulance crews, firefighters who entered the Tower again and again, the police - often going far beyond what was required of them to rescue and to comfort.
We saw acts of simple, but remarkable generosity. On the Sunday morning following the fire, I was standing in one of the streets near the Tower, when a man came up to me with his 6-year old son. He said that Alfie had collected together all his pocket money, and rather than spending it on toys for himself, he wanted to give it to one of the families who had lost their home. Alfie handed me a tin – a dented, well-loved Marvel Avengers tin – with about £60 in it – it was all the money he had.
The fire took place during Ramadan and in the summer there are fewer hours of darkness. Many Muslim volunteers had to work long hours in the heat with no food because of the fast, and did so with great willingness and dedication. They worked alongside people of all faiths and none to do what they could to bring help and hope.
I remember standing outside one of our churches the day after the fire, helping the Christian community there organize the help coming in – a crowd of people had turned up to help. What struck me was the variety. Every ethnicity, background, age – for a moment we all lost our fear of each other, we lost our obsession with ourselves and we reached out across the city in love for our neighbour.
It was a glimpse of what our society could be like - a place where we were for a brief moment more concerned about our neighbour’s wellbeing than we were about our own.
Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love our neighbour. As we come to the end of this difficult year, as we celebrate Christmas, as we move into a new year, nothing can remove the memory of that night – nor do we want to forget those dearly loved people who were lost. Yet my hope and prayer is that this new year can bring new hope of a future, a vision of a city where we lose our self-obsession and listen and learn from places and people that we wouldn’t normally think of reaching out to.
There is something about a Cathedral – it is a place where we are aware we are in the presence of something - someone - bigger than ourselves. As we cross the threshold into this building, it doesn’t matter whether we are politicians, religious leaders, volunteers, survivors, bereaved, residents – we are all equal in the eyes of God. Love makes no distinctions. We are all neighbours to each other and we are called to love our neighbours.
Today we remember with sorrow, grief, tears. And we pledge that those we have lost will not be forgotten.
Today we ask why warnings were not heeded, why a community was left feeling neglected, uncared for, not listened to.
Today we hold out hope that the Public Inquiry will get to the truth of all that led up to the fire at Grenfell Tower, that it will listen to the hopes, fears and questions of those most directly affected by it. And we trust that the truth will bring justice, and that justice will enable true reconciliation – the eventual healing of the divides in our life together that this tragedy has revealed.
As we come this to special time of year; as we enter a new year, we also look forward. We long for a society where we have learnt not just to tolerate our neighbours but to love them. Which means to listen to them. Not just our friends, those who are like us, but our neighbours – those we do not choose, yet who are placed alongside us precisely so we can learn to love them. And to do that we need to see our neighbours differently. Not as those to be feared, despised, neglected. But as a gift to be cherished, valued, loved.
The message of this season, the message that we celebrate this Christmas is found in that ancient word Immanuel - God with us – that God understands, listens and hears the cries of those who feel forgotten and abandoned. And we trust that this service today is an assurance that the families most deeply affected by this tragedy are also not forgotten by our nation, by those who watch and listen around the country today.
My hope, my prayer is that today we will pledge ourselves to change - from a city where we didn’t listen, where we didn’t hear the cries of our neighbours because we were too wrapped up in our own interests and prosperity, to create a new type of life together, where we are turned not inwards to ourselves, but outwards towards each other: a society known for listening, compassion and love. In years to come, our hope is that the name of ‘Grenfell’ will not just be known as a symbol of sorrow, grief or injustice, but a symbol of the time we learnt a new and better way - to listen and to love.