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'I prayed as I watched Grenfell fire'

Gaby Doherty tells Sarah Olowofoyeku about her experience living in the community surrounding Grenfell Tower 

I believe God has hope and healing for the community

ALMOST a year ago, Gaby Doherty was woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of her husband moving around. She complained that he was going to bed late, to which he replied: ‘I’m not going to bed, I’m getting up. Grenfell is on fire.’

On 14 June 2017, in the early hours of the morning, a fire broke out in Grenfell, a tower block in west London. Firefighters were called to the scene as the fire spread rapidly and residents became trapped. It is thought that the building’s flammable cladding caused the flames to spread at the rate they did. The building burnt for several hours before firefighters were able to get it under control. Seventy-two people were reported as having died in the fire.

At 1.30 am, Gaby, who lives opposite the tower, looked out of her window to see the burning building. ‘I could see that it was really serious,’ she says. ‘It was horrendous.

‘My husband, a church minister, went out to try to help, and I stayed at home with the kids. I sat on my bed and watched it. And I prayed.

‘As people started waking up, they were trying to work out how the fire started. Everyone was in complete shock. The shock carried on for days, because we couldn’t quite believe that it had happened.’

The world also watched on in shock, and in the aftermath of the fire, support, resources, donations and acts of generosity poured into the community. It’s a community that Gaby has been a part of for eight years, with her husband and four children

‘I grew up in Somerset,’ she says. ‘I’d never really considered living in a city, but when I was 21 I did a placement year in an urban priority area in an inner city. That gave me a passion for living in tough areas and caring for the people who lived in them.

‘Later, when my husband finished his vicar training, people asked me where I wanted to go. I said anywhere but London. But that’s where we ended up. It was a very clear calling from God, and so we had to go. This is a community that I love now.

‘I’ve got some of the best friends of my life here,’ she continues. ‘They are wonderful. They’re from a range of backgrounds – I know they would do anything for me, and I would do anything for them.’

Gaby was saddened by the loss of life in the fire, but her faith helped her. ‘I didn’t blame God. I’ve always made sure I know him for myself,’ she says. ‘I pray and worship and I trust God. When the fire happened, I thought: “Maybe this is why God called us here.”

‘It was tough, though. One of my youngest daughter’s friends died in the fire. No three-year-old should have to experience that, but we’re getting through it.

‘After the fire, we knew we weren’t going to leave. We were going to get stuck in and find out what God had for the community. And I believe he has hope and healing for it.’

In the days after the fire, Gaby wondered how she could help, so she decided to send out prayer requests to her network. ‘Among other things, I asked people to pray for a few specific people I knew in hospital,’ she says. ‘I got an overwhelming response. I felt that people were listening. After that I was asked to write a blogpost. So I did.

‘My husband writes ethics books, so I wrote to his editor, letting her know that if she wanted anyone to write about Grenfell, I could. She suggested I did.’

The resulting book, called Grenfell Hope, tells the story of the community before and after the fire. She describes her young family’s response and shares the stories of individuals.

Gaby says: ‘Some vulnerable people have been hounded by the press, pushed beyond their limits and then misquoted. I didn’t want to write that kind of book. So I didn’t push and I wanted everyone to be happy with what I said about them.

‘I wanted the book to be true but not one that would make people sad.’

She describes the projects that have sprung up since the fire, such as gardening, poetry groups and fundraising events, which have united the community and kept spirits lifted. One example is #24hearts, which started with people being invited to make one heart with various art materials for each of the 24 floors of Grenfell Tower.

One of the purposes of the book is to bring hope, and at the end of one of the chapters, Gaby writes: ‘North Kensington is fighting back against despair … It is not a place with no name, but one with many names, full of beauty, diversity and creativity.’

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