Thursday, 05 March 2020

Vale Rev. Bernie Clarke AM

Written by Neryl McCallum

The former Assembly Associate Secretary for Aboriginal Work and Mission and early supporter of the Uniting Aboriginal and islander Christian Congress Rev. Bernie Clarke passed away in Adelaide on 23 February 2020. Tributes have flowed for an inspiring and prophetic advocate for social justice, particularly in his solidarity with Australia’s First Peoples.

Bernard (Bernie) Angus Clarke was born on Christmas Eve 1937 at Samarai in PNG where his parents where Methodist Missionaries. His early years were spent in South Australia after the family was evacuated from PNG at the beginning of the war in the Pacific, but they returned to PNG as soon as they could and stayed there until 1950.

On their return to Australia Bernie’s father was appointed as Superintendent at Mogumber Mission (formerly Moore River) in WA. Bernie was sent to Wesley College Perth as a boarder for school but spent holidays at Mogumber where he built lifelong friendships with the families settled there. This was where his desire to work with Aboriginal people was kindled.

After completing High School Bernie returned to South Australia and spent 18 months working on a family farm in Tarlee, but in 1957 while attending NCYC, he was inspired by the keynote speaker Rev Bill Gowland to train for the ministry.

He entered Wesley College in Adelaide but wanting to have a broader view for what he foresaw as his work as a missionary, he also studied social work. After his ordination and a year in Pt Lincoln, he and his wife Carlene moved to All Saints in Sydney for missionary training, here Bernie also studied anthropology.

Bernie and Carlene moved to Darwin in 1964 with the view of working at Somerville Homes, but as the building of these cottage homes had been delayed, they were sent to Goulburn Island (Warruwi) where Bernie was Superintendent. Bernie learnt a great deal from his time at Warruwi, particularly from the elders, some of whom were strong Christians, some of whom did not think a great deal of the church.

After a year the Clarkes moved back to Darwin where Bernie was employed by the Northern Synod to work in particular with Aboriginal people visiting Darwin for health and legal issues. He worked supporting children living in Somerville homes, visited people in the prison, hospital and the Leprosarium, and those staying at Bagot Reserve.

As Senior Officer for the Northern Synod he travelled the whole of the Synod from Broome to Arnhem Land and into the APY Lands in SA. He was involved in Lay Preacher Training, a movement which went on to become Nungalinya College. Appointed Director of Mission and Service for the United Church of Northern Australia after Cyclone Tracey, Bernie was involved in the rebuilding of Darwin.

Bernie’s work with Mr G Djerrkura who later served as Chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, as well as with other community workers was ground-breaking and prophetic and led to the ‘Free to Decide’ policy. Through ‘Free to Decide’ the Methodist Church changed its missionary work from one of the Church being in charge to handing over the running of missions to Yolngu for Yolngu.

This led to the Homelands movement as people who had been forced onto missions were supported to return to their own country, and the Church actively supporting those struggling for Landrights. Throughout Arnhem Land Bernie was known, trusted and loved by Yolngu, Arrakpi and others.

in 1980 Bernie took a job as Associate Secretary for Aboriginal Work and Mission at the National Assembly in Sydney. Here he was in charge of missionary training and supervision and building links with first peoples in the Uniting Church nationwide. It was on a trip with Rev Charles Harris to a World Council of Churches meeting in Aotearoa/New Zealand that Charles’ and his imaginations were set alight when they saw the dignity the Maori community and traditions were given by the Church.

Charles wanted this for the first people of Australia and Bernie promised to back him to make it happen. This was the beginning of the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. Bernie stood with Charles for every step of the establishment of UAICC.

In 1980 Bernie joined a group of five Uniting Church ministers, and others standing in solidarity with elders in a blockade of a mining site at Noonkanbah (Pea Hill) in WA. This led to their arrest. It made headlines as not long after Bernie was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

After the monumental March for Freedom, Hope and Justice in 1988, Bernie and Carlene returned to South Australia where Bernie worked in many roles in the South Australian Church. During his time in the SA Synod as Team Leader, and Solidarity and Justice Leader, Bernie was involved in campaigning to change legislation around sex work, supporting refugees from the Sudan, standing with the Ngarrindjeri women wanting to stop the building of the Hindmarsh Island bridge, campaigning against uranium mining and nuclear weapons and power, and supporting LGBTI people looking for full acceptance within the UCA. His public support of disenfranchised people was centred in the strong belief that God has a prejudice for the poor and excluded.

Bernie lived a full and rich life, was kind and loving, and had a heart for justice. Speaking at his memorial service in Adelaide, Assembly President Dr Deidre Palmer honoured Bernie’s life and witness to Christ and all that he contributed to the life and mission of the Uniting Church nationally. Reflecting on his courageous advocacy at the Noonkanbah blockade, Dr Palmer said:

“The President of the Uniting Church Assembly, the Rev. Winston O’Reilly said at the time: 

I am proud that the Uniting Church stands with the Yungngora people of Noonkanbah station in their struggle to protect their sacred sites. I am grateful to the representatives of our own and other churches who acted with integrity to make that solidarity tangible.

“Bernie lived out ministry and service to Christ and our Church with integrity, in many tangible ways,” said Deidre.

“He called us to be the Church who passionately participates in God’s mission of justice, reconciliation and hope.

“His life and ministry encouraged many of us to be more faithful and radical followers of the Risen, Crucified Christ.

“We mourn Bernie’s passing from us and will continue to be inspired by his life. 

“The Uniting Church expresses our love and sympathy to you Carlene, whose love and support for Bernie has been inspiring. Your partnership in ministry has contributed richly to many of our lives.

“We extend our love and sympathy to Jane, Stefan, Glen and Hugh; Tim and Karen, Mackenzie and Jessica. Thank you for sharing your father and grandfather with us all.

“We thank God for the life and witness of Rev Bernie Clarke, who is now part of the communion of saints. Bernie, Well done, good and faithful servant!”