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‘'When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his, there are many ways and forms in which a man can be a Christian' (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer).
LIFE & SOUL 4 - MELVYN AKINS: VOICE FOR JUSTICE AT GRENFELL TOWER
I was born on Lancaster West Estate in Hurstway Walk, one of the adjacent buildings to Grenfell Tower. I lived there for the first 30 years of my life. Out of every window of our three-bedroomed flat, we could see the tower a hundred yards away - the only building on an otherwise clear skyline.
I grew up in a single-parent household, a reality shared by many children living in the area. Although this is an apparent disadvantage, it never presented itself that way until I was well into my mid-teens. Like so many of the social housing complexes in North Kensington, Lancaster West Estate had a bad reputation. It was considered to be a slum; nobody with money or affluence actively chose to live at that end of the borough.
Most, if not all, kids from the estates knew each other and there were plenty of places where we could hang out together. One of them was Grenfell Tower. We played in it, around it and underneath it. I even had sleepovers there and my first romantic interest once lived on the 20th floor. As kids, we used to race the lifts from the top floor to the ground. When I was growing up, I once saw a fire in Grenfell Tower. It was contained, and few residents knew about it until afterwards. The building has undergone many works in recent years involving the cladding, new electrical wiring, gas pipes and double-glazed windows.
As the youngest of three children by almost a decade, I was inevitably the last to leave home. In fact, I found myself bereaved and alone for several years owing to the fact that my mother died of breast cancer when I was 22. Seven years later I moved out and swapped the property, through the popular mutual exchange scheme, with a family who felt overcrowded in their smaller flat. Now I live about 750 yards away and, although less dominant from here, Grenfell Tower is still visible from my rear bedroom window. It always felt comforting to be able to see it and to know that my roots were not far away.
I was asleep when the fire took hold in the early hours of June 14, 2017. I awoke as usual to the alarm on my mobile phone at 6 a.m. Something was different, though. I noticed I had around 50 messages and missed calls. As I started to flick through them, I saw I had been sent some videos showing Grenfell Tower on fire in the dark. It didn’t make sense - until I opened my curtains. Straightaway I messaged a few friends who either lived in the tower or had previously had their homes there. Arriving at work – I’m an IT and telecommunications’ specialist - I logged into the news on my computer and looked at various social media feeds. The more I saw, the worse I felt. I couldn't ignore it. It was impossible to concentrate. It felt that choosing to go to work that day was the worst decision I had made in a while.
I left a couple of hours early to get back and help. My office is usually a 20-minute drive, yet the trip took nearly two hours. Every surrounding road, including the nearby motorway, had been closed, owing to the amount of debris coming off the tower. Yet the traffic was also bad because scores of people had turned up with carloads of bedding, clothing, food and water. People were rushing on foot, ferrying goods between sites.
But I saw true humanity that night. Everyone put their differences aside and committed themselves to a common goal. This was the real relief effort. Beyond the emergency services, the authorities were nowhere to be seen. The people rallied themselves and provided a network of support and co-operation probably not witnessed since the Second World War. As I recall, it took approximately two days for the authorities to create a presence and, even then, it felt like a weak and half-hearted response. As a community, we got on with it, without hesitation and without direction. We never got a break, we couldn’t take a break. These were our people: fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. It was a crisis and they needed us.
The Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council and Tenant Management Organisation closed their offices as normal over the weekend, then reappeared on the following Monday bolstered by the presence of the British Red Cross. By then, all respect and trust in the authorities had been lost. No-one had stood up and made their presence felt, no clear statement had been issued and no emergency powers had been invoked to deal with such a major incident. After their weekend break, the authorities turned up, essentially wanting to take over operations rather than work with the community which had done so much before them. Community hubs, the churches, the mosques and synagogues, the local youth clubs – this is where the real heroes were.
Grenfell Tower was a collection of people from multiple cultures, religions and employment statuses. Ordinary people. Fortunately for me, most of my friends who lived in tower had either moved out to larger surrounding properties or managed to escape the fire. I have specifically spent time with two people who escaped, one from the sixth floor and another from the 15th – both are men. By their accounts, if they weren’t as fit as they are, or had left two minutes later, they wouldn’t have got out.
It is a tragedy in every sense - morally, logistically, emotionally and politically. It was on the Friday after the fire that things changed for me. I saw a friend talking to a television reporter. Overhearing what he was saying, I hurled a few words over to back him up. It was at that point that the camera switched to me and I found myself reeling off a list of factors that needed to be investigated. Three people immediately congratulated me and encouraged me to keep talking. So I did, and found myself speaking for long periods on the march back from the town hall to the tower - and for several hours once we’d arrived. I received words of support, compliments, encouragement and agreement from many people. They all said that it was important that I kept going. I have always been an active member of the community but always silent. Speaking publicly has never been of interest to me and it is not something I’ve ever experienced beyond reading a few lines of scripture in church. But I also spoke at a multi-faith service a week later and the reaction was the same. I now feel I am obliged to keep speaking – it is not a talent I have ever been aware of but cannot deny it is God-given. I have never trained for anything like this and yet the words seem to come freely.
I have frequented most of the churches in the area from youth to adulthood, and now mainly attended St Helen’s, Ladbroke Grove. I have had a very on-off relationship with my faith, most of which I attribute to the bereavement I suffered after my mother died. It felt like her death completely wiped out my faith for many years. It took a long time to get through the stages of grief – the longest of which was anger, which I’m not even sure has completely passed. I think my main challenge is still figuring out what it will take to put the anger to one side. All of the conventional methods of therapy I can think of have helped with some of the symptoms but have never got near the root. However, while I have had a somewhat semi-estranged relationship with my faith in recent years, I completely acknowledge that the lessons I learned in my early, formative years have shaped my general outlook and values in life. Growing up with an affiliation to the church certainly taught me the importance of being present and the need to participate in the activities and events around me.
I do recognise that faith can offer a huge amount of comfort and provide a massive amount of strength. Aside from the mass of volunteers, the swarm of activity and the seeming disarray after the Grenfell Tower fire, there were clear patterns of movement and they all gravitated towards the faith centres - the mosques, the churches, the synagogues. In any major crisis, it seems we innately tune into something bigger than ourselves, as we recognise that this isn’t something we have the power to change on our own. Or perhaps it is simply that, when there has been loss of life, we believe that places of faith provide a context where we can be more connected with those around us or with those who have passed away.
The tragedy of Grenfell Tower has made me realise that it isn’t enough merely to come along and just be present. It has taught me that real change happens when everyone contributes. Here in North Kensington, no one has had to be in charge but the magic of human spirit has flowed through the area. It gives us a true example and blueprint of how life should be.
True, we feel abandoned, we feel angry, we feel injustice. But we just need to realise that all of the petty differences that life, society and the media encourage us to focus on are irrelevant. There is much more that unites us than divides us. We are foolish to focus on those differences as means to segregate, exclude and vilify. We are all responsible for our destiny and outcomes.
My vision for Grenfell’s legacy is not only for justice but also for the community’s response to be a blueprint for the nation. I hope we will be able to put our differences aside without it taking another disaster to force us to do so; I hope that ordinary people will refuse to be disregarded again and will use the systems available to make their voices heard; and I hope that communities will support the people who rise from among them and are willing to represent them. If we all take responsibility for our communities and contribute something, then true change and real justice can be enjoyed by all.