Church pastor named citizen of year

Cardinia Shire Council''s Australia Day award winners. From left: senior citizen of the year Rob Porter, citizen of the year Luke Williams, mayor Jeff Springfield, community event of the year organisers Wendy Andrews and Tony O''Hara and young citizen of the year Jayden Kruzicevic-King. Pictures: GARY SISSONS 203155_10

By Mitchell Clarke

A pastor dedicated to helping some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable residents is Cardinia Shire Council’s citizen of the year.

Follow Baptist Church’s Luke Williams humbly received the award during a packed ceremony at Cardinia Cultural Centre on Sunday 26 January.

For almost four years, Mr Williams has driven the ‘Bless Collective’ initiative, working alongside Orange Sky Laundry and Clean as Casper to offer food, laundry and shower services to those in need.

“We started as a church about four and a half years ago called Follow Baptist Church with the vision of being a blessing to the community and joining others in the community who were doing amazing things,” Mr Williams said.

“After exploring the needs of the community through a number of conversations, we came to the conclusion there was a need around poverty and social isolation.”

Over three years ago, Cardinia Shire Council approached the church about running a food van on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Pakenham’s Burke Park.

“When they asked, we were only one year in and in my head I was thinking no, we don’t have the people or the money but straight away the word yes came out of my mouth,” he said.

“On the way home, a mate asked how we were going to do it and I remember saying ‘I have no idea, but we’re going to give it a go’.”

And a go they’ve given it.

“It’s been pretty amazing and over time it’s been really well received in the community,” he said.

About 100 volunteers, made up of church goers and general community members, turn up twice a week to assist in providing help to those who need it most.

“They just come every week, rain hail or shine,” he said.

“We’re there because we realise that homeless and disadvantaged people don’t have days off so we don’t take days off either.”

Every Tuesday and Thursday, a team of chefs prepare between 40 to 80 meals, and on Thursday’s Orange Sky bring their portable laundry and Clean as Casper bring their portable shower to provide some much needed reprieve.

But the interaction provides a positive experience for both parties.

“The most important part of it is the conversations, a lot of these people are very lonely and very isolated, so we’re there to listen to their stories and hopefully speak some words of hope and be an encouragement,” he said.

Mr Williams said his experiences with some of the people have been “quite profound” and have shaped him as a person.

“They’ve made me realise that most of us are only a couple of crises away from ending up in some real trouble ourselves, so it helps you appreciate what they’re going through,” he said.

“The thought that we can make a difference and help with some of the stuff in their lives is a really wonderful thought so that’s why we do what we do.”

Mr Williams said the people who rely on his service have become friends and that he no longer sees them as clients or guests.

“They kind of feel like family – you go through the highs and lows with them and in these situations there are lot of lows, so to be there in those moments is really important,” he said.

“When you see change in them, whether it’s coming out of difficult situations, breaking the cycle of poverty, getting a job or finding a friend, all these things are so rewarding.

“Everyone’s different, they all come from different circumstances but they’re still everyday people.”

In accepting his award, Mr Williams said he was “truly surprised” to be announced as winner and said it was an “amazing and humbling” feeling.

He acknowledged his fellow nominees and thanked the entire group of volunteers who help bring the project to light weekly.“I feel a bit embarrassed getting up and receiving the award, because there is so many people who help make it happen every week, and I’m one of those but i’m just one in a big team,” he said.

“It’s a big project and without them we couldn’t do it.”

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