A year ago, on 14th June 2017, a devastating fire ripped through a west London tower block, tragically killing more than 71 people. Youth worker Jamie Sewell shares his experience
My journey to Grenfell Tower began when my wife and I moved to Ladbroke Grove to set up an Eden team. I was 27 at the time, and genuinely thought I would be the bringer of revival.
Eden Ladbroke Grove launched in March 2011 in partnership with Latymer Community Church. The church was led by a dedicated team of four, who had committed their lives to faithfully serving the community. They ran activities for the older residents in the area and hoped the Eden team would be effective in reaching teenagers.
I had poured so much of my life into these boys that I had forgotten to look after myself
After moving onto the estate, Eden Ladbroke Grove quickly connected with four boys who had little experience of church. Aged between 11 and 13, they all had some association with the local gang, whether connected through older siblings or from growing up on the estate. The church wasn’t the most relevant place to connect with them, so we started a youth club and an initiative called Sunday Meals, where we invited them for a roast at our flat. This became very popular, and before we knew it we had 15 local boys from different faiths and backgrounds crammed into our flat eating, praying and sharing life every Sunday.
We took them to Soul Survivor and they were an absolute nightmare! But when we invited the Holy Spirit to come, God blew them away. One boy started speaking in tongues, which I initially thought was his native Arabic tongue! They asked what had happened, so we looked through the book of Acts and all the boys were amazed.
Over the next few years our love for Ladbroke Grove and the lives we were connecting with grew. The lads developed in their faith, but despite our best efforts many also had a growing involvement with local postcode rivalry and gang culture. In 2014 we experienced a tragic six months.
One boy I had been mentoring had his phone stolen and was nearly stabbed to death trying to get it back. He stabbed another boy in the process and was sent to prison.
Another lad became embroiled in a very dangerous transaction involving weapons, which resulted in a significant debt. I involved the social services and was branded a ‘rat’ by the local gang. This was the first time I had felt intimidated in my work.
One boy was a very gifted athlete. I remember talking with him on a Monday night, saying: “Mate, these lads are getting involved with all kinds of madness. You be careful and stay away from drink and drugs.” The following Saturday he went to a rave, had his drink spiked and tragically died. It shook our whole community to the core and left us devastated.
As tensions between postcodes grew in this six-month period, the tragedy and violence were unprecedented. It started to significantly affect my mental health.
One event finally pushed me over the edge. During a Sunday Meal there were rumblings about trouble with a rival gang. We talked with the lads about forgiveness and prayed they would make good decisions. I had a phone call that evening to say one of our boys had pushed a knife into a rival gang member. I was entirely crushed.
I had moved to London thinking I could bring revival. It took me three years of heartbreak to realise I couldn’t even scratch the surface.
I felt like I had failed and started to blame God. In my eyes he had sold me a lie, then abandoned me. In reality I hadn’t been listening. I was becoming desperate, angry and erratic, which led to me taking some dangerous and idiotic actions. One particularly low moment came during a night out, when I witnessed someone pimping out women and decided to tell him what I thought of him. It quickly escalated before my friends intervened and spoke some sense into me. I was losing my mind!
There’s a Bible verse that reflects how I felt at the time. After Jonah went to Nineveh and God saved the people he was miffed because he felt like God hadn’t fulfilled his promise. Jonah 4:1-3 says: “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’”
I felt abandoned by God. I was broken and had lost hope. I ended up at the doctor’s surgery, crying on a guy who I think had qualified the week before! I got counselling and lots of prayer. I had poured so much of my life into these boys that I had forgotten to look after myself. Thankfully, I have lovely parents and an amazing wife, and am part of a great Eden network. They reminded me to eat, sleep, pray and take care of myself.
I had finally worked out that I was not the saviour of the world, and that I couldn’t resolve the Grenfell Tower tragedy
Chinese evangelist Andrew Gih said: “God’s time for revival is the very darkest hour when everything seems hopeless. It is always the Lord’s way, to go to the very worst cases to manifest his glory.” I wish I could have learnt my lesson an easier way, but I finally saw how arrogant I had been to think I could do it all. I realised that no matter how many hours I invested in a person they would be wasted unless I also spent hours kneeling in prayer.
If you’re carrying a burden because something has happened on your watch, it’s not your burden to carry, it’s Jesus Christ’s. That’s the beauty of it. We get to celebrate the victories, and where there is devastation Jesus carries that. He shoulders it for us.
I am still desperate to see revival; it’s the reason I get out of bed each morning. But I no longer think I’m the man who is going to make it happen.
A way forward
Isaiah 43:18-21 says: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
I got a new job within The Message Trust. My arrogance again came forward and I started moaning at God saying: “I’m the only person in the world who seems to want to share the gospel!” God pointed me to 1 Kings 19:18, when Elijah also moaned at God. God said to him: “Yet I reserve 7,000 in Israel–all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”
I felt like God said to me: “Jamie, there are 7,000 others across London who want to see revival. You’re not the only one, so stop being such a spoilt little brat and crack on. What I’d really love you to do is start getting to know these 7,000 others, start gathering them for prayer and just intercede.”
For the next few months we started gathering people and formed a prayer network called ‘the remnant’, which met monthly. In May 2017 we had a real sense that God wanted us to start praying for workers. This was significantly more intense prayer. I was getting up in the morning and thinking: “Pray for workers.” I was walking to work thinking: “Pray for workers.”
I woke up on 14th June and my phone had just blown up. It was full of messages and missed calls. People were phoning, saying: “Jamie, we need you at the church.” I turned on the news and saw Grenfell Tower ablaze. We had worked that block hard for the last seven years. We knew a lot of people who lived there.
My wife and I had moved away from Lancaster West when I changed my job; however, the Eden team is still going strong there. The entire Eden team and church leadership were woken on the night of the fire and were responding by 2am. They opened up the church, which became a place of refuge for so many people in the community.
By the time I got to the church the team was exhausted. We were all in shock, and, as well as trying to meet the need, we were also concerned for the friends we knew from Grenfell Tower. I can’t express the tragedy. The scenes were like nothing I have ever seen. It was absolutely horrific. I can’t put it into words, and to be honest I’m still processing it.
There was so much need walking through the door of the church, and the estate was very quickly covered in missing posters. But God had prepared us for what was happening. I had finally worked out that I was not the saviour of the world, and that I couldn’t resolve the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Jesus is the only saviour, and we all needed to lean on him.
Hope in the darkness
Our prayers for workers were answered in an incredible way. We had thousands of people turn up, and so many clothes and finances were donated. We had spent the last seven months networking in London because I had been trying to find ‘the remnant’. God had put us in a position where we were one of the smallest churches in London, but probably one of the best connected. We were able to reach out to some really key people who managed to get a lot done in a very limited time. The body of Christ just came together. It wasn’t about The Message Trust, Latymer Community Church or the other churches and individuals involved; it was about Jesus’ agenda and we walked in it.
On the Sunday after the fire we held an open air service. Numerous gospel artists came for free and Frog Orr-Ewing, rector of Latymer Minster in Beaconsfield, cancelled his service and came down with his worship band.
The area around Grenfell was like a horror show, with some people just wandering the streets and others grieving their entire families. I’ve got nothing to compare it to; it was like a war scene. Yet in the middle of it, the Church pulled together this beautiful response. Local Christians just loved the community and shared the best message in the face of absolute tragedy. No one could make it better, no one could fix that tower, no one could bring those lost in the fire back to life. But Jesus Christ’s message saves and brings hope.
That same morning we started receiving flyers for the Day of Rage, a protest about the tragedy of Grenfell. You could feel the tension in the air. The London riots had brought the same fraught feeling and we didn’t want to lose more young men to similar violence.
The old me would have said we needed to go down to the Day of Rage march and stop everyone from rioting, but I knew I couldn’t do it. The revelation was that Jesus Christ is better than me. We decided we needed a day of prayer.
God had gone before us and built the networks we needed. We messaged some people and managed to gather a group to pray from 12pm to 9pm in Kensington Temple Church. We had the remnant. More than 500 people who were passionate about the gospel and seeing Jesus transform our city came to intercede. That prayer was intense; it didn’t drop off.
God had gone before us and the Day of Rage became a day of confusion. I genuinely believe the Church’s prayers stopped riots in London that day. I know how angry people were, and I don’t know how we could have avoided it without Jesus Christ.
As I look back over the past seven years I can see Jesus was right in the midst of each challenge and trauma Eden Ladbroke Grove faced. Despite at times feeling like we were alone, I can see now that Jesus was working miracles in the community we relocated to. As God’s people position themselves in the midst of challenge and poverty we create opportunity for God to use us beyond our own strength.
I had poured so much of my life into these boys that I had forgotten to look after myself
I had finally worked out that I was not the saviour of the world, and that I couldn’t resolve the Grenfell Tower tra