London was grieving following the terror attack in Westminster, during which five people died. They included an unarmed policeman, PC Keith Palmer, who had tried to prevent the terrorist from entering Parliament, and the intruder himself, who was shot dead by a plain clothes policeman seconds afterwards.
In the shocked aftermath, people on the streets were uncharacteristically open to talking with strangers, to sharing their feelings and to accepting offers for prayer. On Thursday the first five Billy Graham Rapid Response Chaplains circulated among the crowds, making eye contact and initiating those conversations which people so badly needed to have.
Eight people welcomed the opportunity to pray with chaplains. The first was Paul, ashen-faced and visibly disturbed, who had draped himself in a Union Jack, and stationed himself in front of one of the early shrines of flowers.
Most conversations took place in Trafalgar Square, where a vigil was organised on the evening following the tragedy.
“We’re all so stoical normally,” said a woman giving directions for London Transport. “It’s good to have a place where people can come to express their grief.”
The chaplains spoke with two young ladies who were handing out tea lights for those attending the vigil. Marion and Julia worked for the Mayor of London.
Both were touched that chaplains should have come to London to support the community at this time. The chaplains commended the young women for the work they were doing in London, asked if they could pray with them and if they had anything specific to pray for. Julia responded by saying that this was the first time anyone had asked if they could pray for her and she initially had no idea what to say.
Then she added: “Actually yes – could you pray for the wife of my boss, who has a brain tumor?” The chaplains prayed with the ladies, who said that they were so encouraged by seeing the chaplains drawing alongside Londoners and tourists alike.
As so often happens, many people revealed that they were already trying to process an earlier trauma. One young man was still trying to deal with the effects of being caught in the terror attack of 7/7.
Aarav had taken the day afternoon off work to attend the vigil. He approached the chaplains asking if they would take a photo of him with the National Gallery as a backdrop.
He shared how he was fearful of even being in central London but had felt compelled to come to stand with hundreds of others in respect of those who had lost their lives. “I’m really anxious,” he explained. “There is so much hate and fear around it torments me.”
Originally from India, he explained how even his young son was asked his faith before other children in the street would consider playing with him. “We are Hindu, but what difference should that make to children? Children are children and they should play together without having to even mention faith.”
The chaplains asked if they could pray for Aarav, who eagerly agreed that they could. The chaplains focussed on the peace that Christ can bring and that wherever we are in the world, fear and violence may be present but God is an ever present help in times of trouble, sustaining us through our difficult lives.
Aarav left stating that his fears had gone and that he could sense, in his words, the positive energy from the Chaplains.
Donna was sighted moving through the lingering crowd with tears running down her cheeks. She shared how she was a civil servant and based in Parliament. “I wasn’t in work yesterday, but it could have so easily have been me or one of my friends.” She continued: “You don’t know if you don’t work in Parliament, but it’s like a village, a small community. Yes, London has been attacked but it’s my community.” The chaplains asked if they could pray for her. Donna agreed and was thrilled to have the chaplains pray for her community; for their safety and for all of those caught up in the tragedy that was still unfolding.
One chaplain engaged in conversation with a Filipino who was hovering on the edge of the crowd. The man shared that he was worried about the level of knife crime in London, which had caused him to stay in after dark. The events of the day before, with an attacker wielding an eight-inch knife, had exacerbated the fear he was already struggling with.
More than that, he shared, his adoptive father had passed away just a few days before. The man, who was a Christian, gladly accepted the opportunity to pray with the chaplain for comfort in his grief and for strength the fight the terror which threatened to engulf him.
“It was good to be here today,” said Nigel Fawcett-Jones, coordinator of the UK Rapid Response Team. “The Holy Spirit gave us so many opportunities.”
Scroll through the photos below to follow some of the scenes which the chaplains experienced.
Names have been changed to protect privacy.