by Linda Ryan
I think everybody has images that live in their minds and that surface now and again at various times. I know I have been at weddings which brought to my mind images of other weddings, and also mental pictures of events that occurred even before I was born but which have become iconic in their impact on the world.
Images are pictures, whether they are seen with the eyes like photographs or news reports or even personal experiences, or mental pictures that have been set in the mind through reading or hearing a storyteller. The vivid ones are often the visual kind, like pictures of war, natural disaster, or some other media reporting of events. I never witnessed personally the horror of Auschwitz or the sight of the mushroom-shaped cloud of a nuclear test on the island of Bimini, but I know what they look like because I have seen the images of them so often. I’ve seen photographs of volcanic ash falling in the Philippines when Mount Pinatubo erupted. I seen videos of tsunamis and also the subsequent damage that have been caused by the monstrous waves. I also have mental images of things that I have seen, whether in a live broadcast or even being present when something horrible happened.
This past week has been horrible, what with shootings and violence and even unnatural disasters. The image that sticks in my mind most clearly is that of an apartment complex in London, a 24 story building blazing like a torch in the English night sky. I don’t know if they have completely determined how many were injured or died because of this disaster, but I know that a community was fractured.
In addition to the brave firefighters and emergency workers, the people of Grenfell Tower witnessed heroism from members of its own community. Among many heroes of this disaster were some Muslims who were eating their last meal of the day in observance of Ramadan. It was very early in the morning, long before sunup, but they were awake and noticed something was wrong. It became apparent that there was a fire, and instead of running for the exits to remove themselves from danger, they ran from door to door, knocking and banging to awaken people to the danger. They guided them to safe exits. They put themselves in danger to save members of their own community, the other tenants of the building who were from many cultures, spoke many languages, but who felt themselves to be a community.
The disaster wasn’t over simply when as many had gotten out as was possible. The survivors huddled outside, dazed, confused, some injured, and all afraid as they watch their homes go up in flames with all their possessions inside. But another community came to their aid, the larger community surrounding Grenfell Tower. Churches, schools, and many buildings opened and set up places where emergency workers and survivors could find a bracing cup of tea, a blanket for the shivering of shock, or even a safe place to lay sleeping children. It’s not uncommon for things like this to happen, this community response to need in a disaster. Even those who have little bring what they can to help those who suddenly are so much worse off than they themselves. It’s an example of “love your neighbor” which is a tenet most religions and cultures have at their base even if the words are not exactly the same. In order to be a community there has to be love and care for all the people of the community, not just a few.
Marianne Williamson once said, “In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it.” Grenfell Tower with merely the most recent example of work being done, wounds being healed and people finding the power to help. In our Christian faith, we would call this loving our neighbor, and it’s a concept where Jesus was quite positive in his insistence that this meant more than just words. Jesus meant actions as well as words, and didn’t specify that the neighbor would be only someone of the same culture, ethnicity, religion, or any other group that might be different from that of the disciples or the people of Galilee and Israel.
People come together in times of trouble, and that’s a very good thing; it just seems to be that when there are no disasters or mass casualty events, many seem to think first of themselves and perhaps later they can think about other people. People of the area surrounding Grenfell Tower were not rich although some had more than others, were not necessarily more religious than others, or even of a higher status than others. They were people who, whether or not they had ever heard the expression “love your neighbor as yourself”, exemplified that very thing. I think Jesus smiled that day, even as he wept for the dead and dying and for all those impacted in whatever way.
The image of that burning tower will be with me for a long time. Yes, it’s a great tragedy, and the worst part is that very possibly it could have been prevented or even mitigated had the proper precautions and equipment been in place. Still, to me anyway, it shows a picture of hope and an example of community at its weakest moment yet with the strength of the community growing each time a survivor was helped or a neighbor offered assistance. They say pictures are worth 1,000 words, and the images of the fire and of the community efforts at the time of that disaster are to me images of the lessons of the gospel and the will of God.
My prayers are with all those affected in any way by this event, the dispossessed and those who came to their aid. I pray I can be such a community member not just if and when disaster strikes but every day, even in the smallest of ways. And this image will join the others in my mind, to be brought out and remembered for the lessons it teaches.