The Rev Di Nicolios, senior minister at St John's, Diamond Creek, Victoria spoke to about her role in supporting bushfire victims, and how the fires have affected people in her own parish, which is 20km from Kinglake.

Can you give us a general picture of how the fires have affected St John’s, Diamond Creek?

Diamond Creek wasn't actually affected by the fires but we're not far from Kinglake, which was a major disaster area. We all have connections with Kinglake people and we have parishioners who live in Kinglake. One family was safe and their property is safe. Another family lost everything - the mother got out but her two daughters, 21 and 22-year-olds died in the fire. It was a ‘safe house’ would you believe, that the CFA was trying to protect. It was just so unbelievably fierce, like nothing they'd ever seen before.

Strathewen and St Andrews are not far away from us either; they are part of the neighbouring parish actually. Everyone's connected with people. I've got a parishioner who teaches at one of the Kinglake Schools that was burnt to the ground, so they've at least three kids. They're obviously not teaching, but they weren't even able to get up there until two days after the fires. Kids who go to local highschools have friends who live in Kinglake who've been lost. Plenty Valley Christian College is near us, they know of at least 20 families who have lost houses. I don't know the number yet, we're not sure about numbers, that's the hard thing at the moment in that we're still trying to confirm. There have been at least three deaths affecting Plenty Valley Christian College, I'm not sure if that's kids or families. I know 10 kids have been killed who go to Whittlesea High, they lived in Kinglake I think. But our kids at St Helena College near us, Ivanhoe Grammar at Mernda Campus, all of those schools had families who live at Kinglake. I have teachers in my congregation who've taught at Plenty Valley; there are teachers who've taught in other schools in the area, in Strathewen and St Andrews, and so they know the families who've been killed. This is the urban rural fringe of Melbourne and so it's a very strongly knit community wider afield and everybody knows somebody who's affected.

The staff here were just talking about it: who knows who that's been lost, and it goes right back for some people, so it's very difficult. But to lose these two beautiful girls, for us, that's such a tragedy. I heard from my colleague in another neighbouring parish last night that a family that we both know who have been in one of their life groups and who have come to one of our July school holiday programs all perished in their home, parents and kids. So it's touching everybody and it's just horrendous.

What are some of the ways you have been trying to help the community in coming to terms with what has happened?

We have now moved into more practical ways of helping people. We've set up teams to clean people's houses, because everything's covered in inches of soot and ash. Those teams are also cleaning up yards and properties. And our freezer’s full - I'm just about go visit a family in Kinglake now and take over some food. One lady said to me 'it's so hard to cook anything at the moment, but if there's something we can heat up, that's a big help'.

Two of my colleagues from other churches and I were asked to put together a prayer service on Tuesday for our shire council officers. We meet with the Christians on council monthly anyway, to pray for half an hour over lunch, so it was a great privilege to be invited to do this. I had a DVD of photos of people caught up in the fires, with the musical backing of a Christian song, and the local Baptist minister had something similar to another song, so we began and ended the service with those clips, with psalms and prayers in between. It was simple, but very poweful and helpful to the 20 or so who gathered.

We’re moving into a different phase now, and waiting to see what happens after Sunday’s national Day of Mourning. We certainly had extra people in church last Sunday. I’ve invited the local CFA captain to come and talk about how they’re going and dealing with their losses. Six of the Strathewen CFA volunteer firefighters lost their own homes while they were fighting the fires, and the CFA station and all their cars parked there were burnt out. Strathewen has lost about a third of its population.

We've established a memorial site on our front lawn for people to come and bring flowers and leave messages. We're doing this because we want to serve our community and we want them to know that we love them and that God loves them, and people can come to that site whether or not they come into church. We just put a little wooden cross out on the lawn, and there's some flowers there and a box with cards and textas so people can write messages if they want to. Just down the road there's a pet shop, and the owner and all his family were killed in the fires. He was quite well known and people are leaving floral tributes at the shopfront on the shop step. So there's obviously a need in the community to go somewhere - we've got the church open for people to come into, and we've got material for them to read that might be useful. They're just ways that we can tangibly offer support and help, and a place for people to be and to grieve and to reflect, and pray, and hopefully to receive some comfort.

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