Life on the Wayside
Meet the new face of one of Australia’s most prominent charities
At Wayside Chapel in Sydney King’s Cross, a guy with a spiky haircut and a face covered in sweat calls out a jaunty greeting.
“Have you had a wonderful day?” he asks cheerily. “As long as you haven’t drunk too much, eh?”
I laugh good-naturedly.
A Thai transsexual with stubble and high heels totters over to see the receptionist.
“Love over hate,” she muses thoughtfully, reading the motto on the front of the counter. “That’s cool … hm-hm.”
It’s my first introduction to the charity and parish mission of the Uniting Church located near the red-light district of Sydney, which has been offering access to health, welfare and social services for people living on the margins of society since the 1960s.
These and the other visitors sitting in the courtyard enjoying a smoke and a chat are Jon Owen’s adopted family. When the newly appointed CEO first turned up at Wayside Chapel in 2016, he knew God had given him a huge gift.
“My heart just said a huge ‘yes’,” he says. “When I walked in here, I knew immediately that this was the place for me. It’s amazing. By staying faithful to the call that was on my life, God opened doors that are just unimaginable.”
“I heard about a God who has a heart for justice and who is angry at injustice.” – Jon Owen
Assistant pastor since 2016, Owen is taking over the reins in July from Graham Long, who is stepping aside after 14 years as pastor and CEO. Long took on the role at a time when the Wayside building was in disrepair and the charity was under huge financial strain. Under his direction, more than $8 million was raised to restore the chapel to a colourful refuge and the charity has developed new programmes with a focus on reducing social isolation for those living with mental health issues.
For Owen, Wayside Chapel is a beautiful expression of what is possible when you use great resources and great properties located in the heart of the city, right alongside where people are sleeping on the streets, to help people’s lives change.
“Graham not only brought us a great vision and a mission, he also built us to a place of sustainability, so that’s a rare combination,” Owen comments.
“What a gift that is, to not have to step into his role and ask the question ‘how do we stop from closing?’ which is the reality of what he stepped into 14 years ago. Instead we can take a look and say ‘what are the opportunities? What are the needs of our community; how can we be responding to them in a more effective way?’”
At 42, Jon Owen has a shiny beauty that reflects his Sri-Lankan/Indian heritage. But as a child growing up in Melbourne in the 1970s, the immigrant from Malaysia was teased and despised for having a different coloured skin from those around him.
He soon discovered the power of a welcoming word to break down barriers but, equally, he suffered the torments of ugly taunts and insults from school bullies.
“There was a very specific moment in my childhood where I thought, ‘I never want to be vulnerable again, never want to hurt again, so I’m going to work as hard as I can to be as rich as I can to be as respected as possible, so I don’t have to feel like this again, ever’,” he says.
Owen’s plan to become rich and invulnerable was derailed early on as he heeded a call to serve Christ through living among the poor and marginalised.
Having grown up in a big Christian family in Melbourne, Owen gave his heart to Jesus at age 13 and was baptised in Swanston Street Church of Christ at the age of 17. But ironically, almost from the moment of his baptism until his final day of university, Owen drifted away from God, distracted by the array of options for ways to pursue life.
In the final year of studying a computer science and electrical engineering degree, Owen began to wonder what he really wanted to do with his life. He chose a theology subject and said it changed his life.
“I heard about a God who has a heart for justice and who is angry at injustice,” he says.
“I went to join them for a two-week introductory course and didn’t leave for another 20 years.” – Jon Owen
“I realised my life up until that point was certainly one lived in the direction of self-serving type of agenda … And then to reconnect with this God and to have my world open up around this God who has a heart for the vulnerable and has a heart for the hurting and invites us to be a part of a community where everyone is included was really powerful and compelling.”
Immediately, Owen abandoned his degree and started searching for a way of answering the call to serve Christ in an authentic way. He found Urban Neighbours of Hope, a missional group associated with Churches of Christ (in Australia and Thailand) and Baptist Union (in New Zealand), which has teams living among the urban poor in Melbourne, Sydney, Bangkok and Auckland.
“They were not just talking about reaching out or not just running a drop-in centre but moving into the neighbourhood and opening their doors and it was about hospitality and welcoming in asylum-seekers and refugees,” says Owen.
“They were having people who were falling into addiction come and do detox in their own places and I thought ‘that kind of sounds exactly like the stuff that I want to do.’ So I went to join them for a two-week introductory course and didn’t leave for another 20 years and, wow, my life really changed through that.”
“I discovered that it wasn’t a sacrifice at all. It was a real joy in life.” – Jon Owen
For 20 years, Jon and his wife Lisa, with their children Kshama and Kiera, lived on the equivalent of the dole and opened their houses to friends and neighbours in poor areas of Melbourne and Sydney. For ten years they lived and practised hospitality in the housing commission suburb of Mt Druitt in western Sydney, which is known as a hotspot for crime and drug-taking.
Despite facing some hairy crises, Owen says he always felt safe because he was in God’s will, but, more than that, he found joy.
“When I first began to sense that call within me, I was thinking about it in terms of the cost of discipleship – I thought this would take a lot – but very early on in the piece found that it was giving so much back,” he says.
“When I got the call and I finally made that decision to move in and live and work along the poor and marginalised, I discovered that it wasn’t a sacrifice at all. It was a real joy in life.”
Having raised their kids in a big extended family of the western Sydney community, Jon and Lisa would love to see Wayside Chapel expand “out west.”
“We particularly with our hearts feel drawn out west, so I’d like to see as things grow and shape and opportunities arise … I’d like to see our mission is so strong that we could work in many different places. We’ve expanded down to Bondi Beach – we have a great presence there and building community there – and then I’d love personally for us to put a stake in the ground and to look at moving out west one day.”
“Their lives are a testament to the power of change and hope.” – Jon Owen
Wayside Chapel’s mission is described as creating a community with no “us and them”. Its philosophy, developed under Graham Long, is to treat visitors as people to be met, not problems to be fixed, allowing people to move towards health.
Because of this, chapel services on Sunday emphasise what could be termed “practical Christianity”, focusing on making the world a better place by living out Christ’s call to love one another.
When I visit, Owen gives a message from 1 John 3:1-7, emphasising that each person contains a “beautiful spark of God”.
“We have 50 to 80 people a week worshipping with us and about 20 per cent are homeless, 20 per cent would be quite well off by society’s standards and then a whole bunch of people in between – we have young families in our congregation so our church services are pretty eclectic,” Owen explains.
“We have a very gentle philosophy of ministry here and if we’re really trying to build a community with no ‘us and them’, that means you’re not a problem to be solved, I’m not an expert who’s going to fix it because there’s a role for the Holy Spirit.
“We have about ten staff members who used to live on the street now work full time for us and their lives are a testament to the power of change and hope.”
Owen credits his upbringing in a big immigrant Indian/Malaysian/Sri Lankan family for his ability to relate intimately to people who are very different from himself.
“The benefit of that is you have an abundance of family and you never quite know who really is your uncle and who is really your aunty,” he says.
“That is a gift in life that I look upon everyone who I come into contact and say, ‘How would I treat them if they were my aunty or uncle or my brother or my sister – or my child, now that I’m a bit older?’ And so that was a great way to set a foundation for life – being able to reach out to anyone, particularly when people are in crisis.
“How would I treat them if they were my aunty or uncle?” – Jon Owen
“I also bring the experience of someone who grew up on the margins and the edges of society. I’m not going to say we were poor and marginalised – although when we first migrated we did it tough and, yeah, we experienced racism – but I also know what it’s like to look at the centre of society from the edge.”
Ironically, having moved to Potts Point, the Owens are now living in the richest electorate in Australia. But Owen says it doesn’t matter whether someone is rich or poor when their world falls apart.
“Most people walk into our front door – housed and homeless, rich and poor – usually you know that they’re walking in on the worst day of their lives and that’s because their world has fallen apart and so they’ll be met with love and compassion. And without the questions: ‘where are you from? What have you done?’ Because we say that no one is a problem to be solved, they’re a person to be met. And so we focus on meeting people.”More