Janeen and I remember John with great admiration and affection when he came to Mowanjum in mid-1971. He came from Bordertown (South Australia) as a professional agricultural advisor on behalf of W.D. Scott and Co, a respected Management Consultant firm. His visit came at a time when the Mowanjum Community Reformulation program needed to gain some credibility regarding its nascent economic enterprises. John’s valuable report and his practical advice to our endeavours was greatly appreciated as it could be used as “evidence” that what was being proposed was viable. His employers of course had no idea that John (and Elaine) had been energised as recent RS-1 grads. John came at a time when things were really going well and we believe that his experience of meeting significant First Nations leaders such as David Mowaljarlai and being briefly part of the corporate life of the Order played a part in leading him with Elaine to become part of the movement’s life and mission and to their life-long commitment in support of First Nations’ people.
Then in 1994 I (Jonathan) found myself in close collaboration with John when we were part of the nation-wide team contracted to promote the aims of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation an initiative of the Australian Government at the time. John and Elaine were co-coordinators (with an Indigenous colleague) for New South Wales as I was with Kingsley A-Hang for South Australia. I was not at all surprised to discover at the first national planning meeting held in Canberra that John and Elaine were to be engaged in this historic venture. John had a marvellous way of working sensitively and collegially with First Nations’ people, a tribute to his quiet strength, hopeful outlook and down-to-earth emphasis.
Over the years whenever we visited Sydney and attended the Pitt Street Uniting Church, we were always glad to briefly catch up with John and Elaine and hear of their ongoing commitment in support of First Nations’ people. We pay a heartfelt tribute to John at this time of his completed journey and recognise the great loss that Elaine and the family will deeply feel. We give thanks for all the ways John touched our lives and the incalculable ripples of grace his life has made with so many both near and far.
~~. Jonathan and Janeen Barker
When Susan and I had our first overseas assignment around 1973, it was to Melbourne with John and Elaine. John and I spent many, many hours together covering the state of Victoria by car, mainly raising funds for Oombulgurri. Alas, I needed cultural contexting as did nearly all Americans assigned to Australia, contexting that John patiently provided. There is an asymmetry of understanding between Australians and Americans; Australians usually had a good cultural understanding of Americans because, among with other things, Australian TV was full of American content. But Americans thought they were back home, but they were not, and completely missed how different Australian culture was from their own.
John took the lead on our development calls. He explained why. The American style would be something like (I’m exaggerating for effect here, but not much) : “Oombulgurri is a fabulous community that moved back to their original village. After a comprehensive development plan was created, they rapidly moved to self sufficiency. Now their whole future is bright! You can contribute support for this success!”
The Australian style would be more like: “It’s been rough. When the Oombulgurri people tried to move back to their land, there were big setbacks. Some men got drunk and burned down some community buildings. Some people tried to plant crops but they didn’t come up. Many wanted to move back off their land and go back to town. In the midst of all the difficulties there have been small victories. There have been days when a few hours of visionary story-telling might make one think there just might be a small opportunity for progress. Would you be able to contribute to this effort?”
The folks we were talking to wouldn’t have believed an optimistic American-style story of miracles about to happen. But when John opened his mouth and spoke with obvious authenticity and realism about a very difficult situation with glimmers of hope, people responded. John was humble and self-depreciating, but projected an integrity of quiet strength, and a strong underlying conviction and vision that belied his modest style. Susan and I deeply appreciated the time we spent with John and Elaine.
~~ Tim Wegner