I first met Jon Owen at a Wayside Chapel fundraising event held at Billy Kwong in 2018. I felt an instant connection; Jon exudes a natural warmth and openness that instantly makes those around him feel really comfortable. For me, he is like one of my brothers, and with our shared Asian backgrounds the conversation always turns to food and family. I'd like to celebrate and thank Jon for his continuous care of those who are the most vulnerable in our community. - Kylie Kwong
Jon Owen's story
With every challenge, comes an opportunity. Which means 2020 has not been without its positives, says Jon Owen, chief executive and pastor of Sydney's Wayside Chapel.
"We've been getting people off the street and into hotel rooms, the Government has been paying for that. It's been quite an amazing moment to be working in this space. There's been lots of pleasant surprises through it all," he says, radiating a charisma so strong, you can feel it even through a glitchy Zoom call.
Wayside Chapel has been a fixture of Sydney's Kings Cross since 1964, when it first opened its doors to offer a place of sanctuary and support for those who had fallen by the wayside. "Wayside is this beautiful place where we are the family of humanity. From the person walking out of their apartment in Potts Point to the person waking up in the gutter, you can come to this place where you will be treated as equals."
Wayside has long held a special place in the greater Sydney community – and it takes a special person to lead the organisation. For years, that was Rev. Graham Long, who retired in 2018, choosing Owen as his successor.
Born in Malaysia, Owen came to Australia as an infant as his parents sought a better life for their young family. From an early age, his life was clearly mapped out.
"I'm the only boy out of four kids in an Asian immigrant family so there was a lot of pressure and value on providing for the family. To the point where my mother chose my university course for me," he laughs fondly.
Owen was a year away from completing a double degree in computer science and engineering when he took an elective paper on social justice – and derailed his mother's plans forever.
"It captivated me and captured my heart. I found my fit in the universe, really. I thought there's no cost too high to pay, I need to invest in this lifestyle."
Owen took a gap year from his studies. But instead of travelling the world and "finding myself in saffron robes", he stayed in Melbourne, volunteering in one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods to work with the vulnerable and disadvantaged: asylum seekers, refugees and those recently released from prison.
"All of a sudden, this feeling of growing up as an outsider and being excluded made sense. I had this great empathy and compassion and I could connect with people in that space. That was what sparked the passion and the journey."
After more than 20 years, that journey led Owen to Wayside – via a decade in Mt Druitt, where he and his wife Lisa opened their home to those in need, at times sharing their four-bedroom home with up to 13 people, alongside their two young daughters.
His mission has always been to spread love and compassion, which he achieves through creating community and connection. And often the first step in that process, he says, is through food.
"An Aboriginal lady once said to me... you are who you eat with. Food is the catalyst for connection and community. The shortest distance between two people is a shared meal.
"At Wayside, when we hand out a meal, we look people in the eye and call them by their name and say you're not forgotten."
As we approach Christmas, Owen says that philosophy is more important than ever.
"Christmas is always hard for our guys. It's often a reminder of what they've lost, not what they have. This Christmas, we're really facing the reality that every family is going to have to choose the 20 people that they want at their house. We know our guys are not going to make the cut.
"What the world puts last, we're going to put first. And food is the way we get them in. Come and eat prawns and ham, cherries and meringues. But what we're really saying is 'I love you'."
Introduction by Kylie Kwong, words by Joanna Hunkin.