Jon Owen: on the radical path

Jon Owen, Pastor and CEO of the Uniting Church’s Wayside Chapel in Sydney will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming ‘Surrender Perth’ conference. He has an amazing story of living a life  guided by the call of Jesus, and he spent some time chatting with Heather Dowling to share some of it with Revive.

As a young adult, Jon Owens was studying computer science and engineering, and on the right path to becoming a ‘successful’ man in the big wide world. Taking a gap year part way through his degree, however, led Jon to being part of an even bigger world, redefining what success really means.

Jon joined the Melbourne branch of ‘Urban Neighbours of Hope’, living in impoverished Australian communities and opening his house to asylum seekers, drug addicts, and people needing a  place to crash. Intending to stay for a year, Jon spent the next 20 years with the group, dedicating his life to meeting people where they’re at and loving them for who they are.

“When I was quite young, I was searching for meaning in life and I really wanted my faith to be a deep, essential part of my life. But, I couldn’t find a compelling call within the confines of a  standard church,” he said. “When I heard that there was a group of people trying to take seriously Jesus’ command to love and serve the most vulnerable, I leapt at it.

“My heart was awakened to the call in the Bible for a society that has social justice as a key core expression of what it means to live in God’s world and in the kingdom.

“So, I jumped in headfirst and ran a home for asylum seekers in partnership with the Hotham Mission and the Uniting Church that was there at the time. Then, we started another home for men who were coming off heroin, and for kids in gangs. “It was a pretty wild time.”

A group of women in the team also set-up a community for people escaping domestic violence.

In those 20 years, Jon met his partner, married and started a family. Unlike many who shield their kids from as much of the harsh realities of life as they can, Jon and his wife, Lisa, chose to live out their faith with their children, showing them how to put words into action.

“Our kids got to not just hear about our faith and our values, they got to see us living them out,” he said. “And I think that’s really important for the discipleship journey.

“It’s not just a cerebral exercise, it’s a lived out thing. This is what it means to follow Jesus and to find him in the least of these.

“We’re both very grateful for the way we were able to raise our kids.

“We really felt it was a key part of showing our girls that when Jesus said ‘whatever you do for the least of these, you do unto me’, ‘when I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked you clothed  me’ – these aren’t just lessons to put on a poster on the wall, this is stuff we can say we lived out.”

These days, Jon is still living out that same calling, but as the CEO and Pastor of Wayside Chapel, a Uniting Church community centre supporting some of the most vulnerable people in Sydney. He said he has the same focus at Wayside Chapel that he did with the ‘Urban Neighbours of Hope’: bringing people together as equals and finding Christ in the midst of it.

“Our mission is simple, but it’s profound,” he said. “Even after 28 years of consecutive economic growth, we’re finding ourselves more and more disconnected, dissatisfied and lonely. So our mission is about creating community with no ‘us’ and ‘them’.

“Our vision is ‘love over hate’. It’s saying that love will win over hate, but it’s our role to stand in the middle; we’re saying let’s just hold in the middle ground and meet one another

“ No-one is a problem to be solved, they’re a person to be met.”

“We see the very appealing nature of people connecting with each other from wide ranges. We’re operating in some of the most affluent suburbs in Australia that also contain some of the greatest need.

“At the heart of which is a parish mission who is desperately trying to serve our community. We don’t ever claim to be the solutions for the problems or issues facing the church, we’re just trying to do it the best we can in the communities we’re in.”

Jon said that the Wayside Chapel is not a crisis centre, but rather it’s a community centre – with a full and engaging calendar. Anyone from the community is invited to attend community lunches, art workshops, soccer games, cooking classes, mindfulness classes, computer classes, bingo, and more. There are also a range of clinics people can attend, such as employment, mental health, podiatry and National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) clinics.

Regular church services are also held, bringing corporate executives and people experiencing homelessness sharing worship next to each other each week. Worship attracts around 50 to 70 people each Sunday, with about 20 of those being atheists.

Jon said there’s no ‘typical’ day at Wayside; just that hospitality is at the heart of it all.

“All our programs are designed around meeting people – some of them on the worst day of their lives – and helping invite them back into the world of relationships and connection and getting  them back on their feet.

“There’s something beautiful about community there, and about love and joining together and breaking down all those barriers and division,” Jon said.  “So much of our society is about reinforcing our difference and very little is about celebrating our common humanity.

“It’s an amazing place. We see high powered corporate executives sitting next to guys that just woke up in the gutter, and they’re holding hands, singing songs together and realising that there is this common need at the heart of it all.”

The philosophy of Wayside Chapel and of the way Jon lives out his calling is around welcoming everyone into a place where they are free from judgement. An important aspect of this is in using inclusive language that is free from labels.

“We welcome them in as if we’re welcoming them into our own house,” Jon said. “We’re very keen on maintaining language that includes people. So no-one who comes through our doors is a client; everyone who walks in is a visitor.

“Everything is based around dignity. We don’t have a soup kitchen; we have a low cost café. When it’s a soup kitchen, you’re a charity case and I’m a charity provider. When you and I pay three bucks for a coffee we’re not only paying for the coffee, we’re paying for the right to be in that space.

“When we think about so many in our community who are sleeping rough and on the street, they’re always in someone’s way. Whereas when you walk in through our doors you’ll be treated with  dignity and you’ll be treated as a first class customer.

“We often say that if someone walks away feeling met rather than worked on, it’s been a good day here.”

This month at ‘Surrender Perth’, Jon will share his experiences and inspire others in the journey. The conference will bring together passionate Christians who are working to live out the call of Jesus. Not just a keynote speaker, Jon is ultimately passionate about the Surrender community. Having been part of the initial discussions at the inception of the conference, Jon said he hasn’t  missed a Melbourne event yet. This will be the first Surrender conference held in Perth.

“What I see in Wayside very much lives in harmony with the Surrender conference,” Jon said. “The Surrender conference is about saying, ‘how do we live out the radical call of Jesus to respond to people in the margins? How do we live in communities of justice and compassion?’ That’s very much what we’re striving to do.

“The Surrender conference has become not a conference for itself, but a place where different communities can gather to listen to one another and continue to encourage each other on the path of radical discipleship.”

Jon’s advice for people wanting to live on this path, but not knowing where to begin, is simple. Jesus’ call to live with those on the margins doesn’t need to be complicated; it’s a way of life.

“You should act,” he said. “You should always act, and then you can begin the cycle of action and reflection.

“We’re not here to save people or to be people’s saviours. A lot of people have a fear they’ll burnout, but that only happens if they try to manage people instead of meeting them,” he said.

Surrender Perth will be held on Saturday 21 September, 10.00am to 9.30pm at Lake Gwelup Christian Church. Find out more at surrender.org.au/perth

Heather Dowling

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