Picture a bush picnic in breathtaking country at the foot of the Grampians mountain range in the Wimmera region of Victoria. But add to that the crunch of frost of midwinter early mornings and the challenge of chopping firewood before you can take a sip from the thermos and unwrap the sandwiches.
This is a regular winter pastime for a handful of hardy members of St Peter’s Lutheran Church in Stawell, a historic Victorian goldrush town.
Members of this woodchopping team, predominantly aged over 70, chop and sell firewood throughout the chilly winter months from May to September to help keep their 26-member strong congregation running, says congregational chairman and one of the team organisers John Simpkin.
On weekends they receive very welcome help from a couple of younger members, including John’s grandsons, Alex, 10, and Jamie, 8, who help with the loading and unloading of the big trailers. The fundraising scheme also literally brings warmth to the town, offering a great service to many community members, particularly older town residents reliant on wood heaters. And yes, temperatures can drop below zero in that part of the world!
But this country with its rolling, tree-studded hills is beautiful, and great for woodchoppers, thanks also to friendly farmers with fallen timber to spare, says John.
Most woodcutting days begin with a rendezvous at the church at 8.30am before a convoy of cars, trailers and utes heads out to a property with fallen timber awaiting collection.
Aside from the satisfaction of cutting, splitting and loading five to six cubic metres of firewood each expedition, the picnic breaks are a highlight.
‘Like in the Wild West when they circled the wagons, we circle the cars to create a windbreak’, John says. ‘The most enjoyable part of the day is sitting around in a circle of chairs for morning tea and lunch. This is a great time of fellowship, and we have been able to encourage two friends from outside our church to join in the work.
‘Sometimes it is almost dark by the time we get home for a much-earned rest.’
Since 2014 woodcutting has become a major fundraiser for the fellowship, which also supports chaplaincy programs at three local schools.
John, 76, and his team are experienced and well equipped with protective gear, chainsaws and wood splitters.
John’s wife of 53 years, Lorraine, 75, is the fellowship treasurer. Lorraine takes the orders which determine whether the band of woodchoppers sets out twice a week or once a fortnight, depending on demand.
They’ve been invited to collect wood at several properties, including one owned by a local Uniting Church member, with part proceeds donated to that church.
‘This is another way of letting people know that the Lutheran church is here in Stawell and happy to help people in the community’, John says.
It has also become a major financial support for the ageing congregation. John and Lorraine, both retired teachers who have called Stawell home for about 40 years, have witnessed the change in the congregation’s size and age profile, as happens in many rural areas.
‘Almost all of the younger members of our families have left the area to complete their education and have then found employment in other areas’, John says. ‘In 2002 the congregation had 74 active communing members with almost 30 members in paid employment. We now have about 26 active communing members and, of these, only six are in paid employment.
‘This decline has made it extremely difficult for our congregation to meet our budget requirements and so a variety of extra fundraising ventures have been created to help cover the gap.’
The hard work of the woodcutters has almost evened out that shortfall.
This latest venture follows a track record of congregational events which have raised funds, as well as the profile of the church, in the local community.
This has included the Stawell Christmas Tree festival, which ran for 15 years until last year, when it ended due to the huge workload on remaining members.
Fundraising has also extended to other church projects such as the restoration of the church’s internationally acclaimed chamber pipe organ.
The 1858 Hill & Son chamber organ is one of only two organs of its kind in the world and is now undergoing a full restoration, thanks to a concerted effort by the congregation, the Victorian District’s Council for Lutheran Community Care and donors from the wider community.
They hope the restoration will be completed in time for a Christmas concert, subject to COVID-19 restrictions of course.
But their ultimate optimism is reflected in John’s favourite Bible verses from Romans 8, reminding them that nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It certainly shows that being God’s salt and light in the community takes many forms. Whether through chopping wood in near-zero temperatures, promoting the Christian message of Christmas, or lobbying to restore a historical organ, God’s light can shine into our world wherever he places us.
Helen Beringen is a Brisbane-based writer who is inspired by the many GREYT people who serve tirelessly and humbly in our community. By sharing stories of how God shines his light through his people, she hopes others are encouraged to explore how they can use their gifts to share his light in the world.
Know of any other GREYT stories in your local community? Email the editor email@example.com
This feature story comes from The Lutheran November 2020. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.
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