Australia Day honours: Man of the cloth fights the good fight

FOR the past 45 years, the clerical collar has been a part of Reverend Gary Bouma’s daily wardrobe.

On the streets of Harlem, New York, throughout the 1960s, it was  a lifesaver during one of the city’s most turbulent periods.

‘‘In the civil rights movement era, at its high point, clergy were seen to be on the side of civil rights,’’ Mr  Bouma recalls. ‘‘Blacks in Harlem knew that you were likely to be on their side and so there was this sort of respect.’’

But in recent years things have changed. 

‘‘When I wear my collar in public now, people look twice. That whole priest abuse thing gets washed down all of us now. That really angers me and disappoints me, but I understand it. It’s almost like you can see people sort of pulling their kids a little closer to them [because] there’s a priest over there.’’

Despite this, Mr Bouma says it’s easier to be a man of religion in this day and age. In his work as a professor of sociology at Monash University, he has studied how religion has changed with society. ‘‘Religion has come back into the public sphere. From about 1970 to 2000, it was much harder and I really had to stand up against secularist pressure.’’

It is this work and his efforts towards interfaith dialogue that have brought him recognition as a member in the general division of the Order of Australia in this year’s Australia Day celebrations. 

Mr Bouma’s work in academia and religion spans three continents and more than four decades. His field  of speciality is the management of religious diversity and how it functions in society. 

‘‘My calling as a priest and my calling as a sociologist both are directed towards making this place a better place than it was when I entered it.’’ 

At 71, Mr  Bouma still works up to 70 hours a week and shows no signs of slowing down. He will be going to Paris later this year as  the UNESCO Chair in Interreligious and Intercultural relations, a position he’s held since 2004.

He says: ‘‘Boredom is not on the agenda.’’

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