Jon Owen lived on the poverty line for two decades to help those in need. Now CEO and pastor of Sydney’s Wayside Chapel, he’s helping more vulnerable Australians get back on their feet.
My Australia is a special series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2019.
Every morning, the courtyard at 29 Hughes Street hums with visitors chatting over a steaming cup of tea or coffee.
Even when it sprinkles with rain no one seems fussed.
The Wayside Chapel in Potts Point has served Sydney’s homeless since 1964, providing food, shelter and services, as well as a family of sorts.
“No-one is an outsider,” its CEO and pastor Jon Owen tells SBS News.
“Wayside is loved not just in Sydney but across Australia because our doors are open to everyone.”
Owen, a married father of three teenage girls, is not your typical missionary. The 42-year-old wears an earring, plays guitar, and charms the crowd with his wicked sense of humour.
But he is the person who many turn to on the worst days of their lives, sometimes after years of trauma or abuse.
Six months ago he was chosen to take on Wayside Chapel’s top job after a rigorous selection process.
The facility was founded by Reverend Ted Noffs in 1964, a time when Kings Cross and its red light district were in the grip of drug culture and illegal gambling. His focus was on action before preaching and he quickly turned a pair of apartment blocks into a community centre and coffee shop drop-in, as well as a chapel.
Today, it is part of the Uniting Church, but religion is only part of the story.
Owen leads a team of 600 volunteers who support not only those sleeping rough, but recovering drug addicts, domestic violence victims and refugees. The facility provides showers, emergency clothing, and free meals, as well as counselling, employment support and social activities like bingo and music jam sessions.
Jon says he is there to support people as a friend, not just a social worker.
"We say no one is a problem to be solved, they're a person to be met.”
“There’s no hole so deep that I’m not going to be there with you. We often say, ‘I’d rather be lost with you than saved without you’.”
There’s no hole so deep that I’m not going to be there with you. We often say, ‘I’d rather be lost with you than saved without you’.
He describes a "pivotal moment in his life" as meeting a 12-year-old girl who told him "I don't want to be deported because I'm not ready to die yet".
Owen was born in Malaysia, the eldest son of Sri Lankan and Indian parents, and moved to Melbourne when he was two years old. He admits his family didn’t always share his passion to build a career helping those in need.
"Being an Asian kid, our life scripts are set out before we're even born."
“It's a very narrow band; doctor, lawyer, engineer … never stopping to actually ask the question, ‘What do I want to do with my life? How do I want to contribute to society?’”
Determined to take the road less travelled, Owen dropped out of his computer science and engineering degree and committed the next 20 years of his life to working with some of the most disadvantaged communities in Australia.
While living in Melbourne, Jon volunteered for the Urban Neighbours of Hope, a missional order supporting people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
As part of the vow workers took, it meant living on the poverty line so he could connect with the communities he was helping.
After some success, he and his wife Lisa were invited to start a team in Sydney.
It was there they opened their Mt Druitt home to anyone in need of support, including refugees, former criminals and recovering drug addicts. It was like a mini-version of Wayside Chapel.
"To the people who say we're crazy; you're absolutely right,” he said.
“But I think what's crazy is how normal life is creating so much inequality.”
Between casual jobs, the couple looked after their “big family”. At one stage they had 13 people staying in their three-bedroom house.
“We thought, let's make a crack at making a difference. Let’s do it not just in an abstract way. Let's not just click online and change the world by signing an activism page. But let's try and make poverty personal."
We thought, let's make a crack at making a difference. But let's try and make poverty personal.
For Indigenous man David Baker-Haroa, the Owen household became his second home, and Jon, an older brother.
"I was about 18 at the time and I called up Jonny and I was like, ‘I’m in a bit of strife, I'm scared’.”
“I got let off when I was in trouble and Jonny said ‘you can’t do that’. [He] pulled me away from drinking alcohol and doing all that silly stuff."
The now 25-year-old says he was inspired by the generosity of Jon and his family.
“Having complete strangers come stay with them, I was like, ‘woah, I’ve never seen anyone do this before ... just open up their home and have people who come straight out of prison.”
He is now working in community service himself, helping other Indigenous men gain education and employment.
Andrew Windsor, who works at Wayside Chapel, also sees Owen more like family.
"A little while ago I had a relapse back into addiction and I was able to go to Jon and have no fear of judgement,” he said.
“I just knew that Jon would be there to support me as best as he could, back into recovery."
It’s that sense of trust and community that Jon treasures. And his parents too, who now recognise the difference he is making.
"I love my parents to bits. They have come on a big journey and they are behind it."
“But Mum's still an Asian mum so she gives you those negative compliments, you know, like 'You're not looking so fat anymore, Jon. Your life isn't so bad anymore’."
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