Pastor Jon Owen is the new Pastor and CEO of the Uniting Church’s mission Wayside Chapel in Sydney.
Jon will officially take the reins from long-time Wayside Chapel leader Rev. Graham Long in July 2018. Rev. Long announced his retirement last year after being in the role for 14 years, building up Wayside Chapel out of financial crisis and into a thriving mission helping disadvantaged people in NSW.
“There’s no place quite like Wayside and there is no leader quite like Graham,” said Jon.
“He [Graham] is a rare mix of just utter humility and dogged determination that doesn’t quit on people. And just gives himself over and over again to everyone who comes into his life.”
Despite working alongside Graham as Assistant Pastor at Wayside since 2016, Jon first met Rev. Long over a decade ago, when Jon was given a tour of Wayside.
“I was immediately deeply moved by the work of Wayside. It was always in my mind and in my heart,” said Jon, who is the third person to be appointed head of Wayside Chapel since its inception in 1964 then led by the late Rev. Ted Noffs.
“What’s always attracted me to the Wayside is that there’s such harmony with the call that’s on my family’s life, which is to live out the best ways we can to follow Jesus in a way that really lives in solidarity with those on the margins.”
Jon’s ministry began 20 years ago. Since then he has been involved with a small protestant missional order Urban Neighbours of Hope that saw his family living in tough neighbourhoods and sharing their home with refugees, people seeking asylum and people in recovery. He also studied social work as a way to deepen his ministry.
While living in Mt Druitt, he helped plant a Uniting Church in the area and it was there that he completed his period of discernment. He is now recognised as a pastor in the Uniting Church and is on track to being ordained.
“That was my introduction into the Uniting Church and it’s continued from there.
“It’s been a wonderful journey. The heart of any community is in relationships and it’s just been a real honour and unexpected joy to have met such wonderful people who are in their own patches trying to serve God,” said Jon.
Hopes for the future
When the question of the future of Wayside, Jon pointed to the history of Wayside and its response to crisis.
In 1964 Rev. Ted Noffs pioneered the Wayside Chapel as response to the growing drug culture particularly among youth. In the 90’s amidst the heroin crisis the then CEO Rev. Ray Richmond, helped put together a safe injecting room called “The Tolerance Room”; which led to the opening of Uniting’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre. Then in 2004, Rev. Graham Long through leadership helped Wayside out of financial crisis and into a strong community organisation.
As for the future, Jon wants to see Wayside get back to the “spirited protest” that began with Rev. Ted Noffs.
“I’d really like to think the opportunity before me is not one of crisis that we’re facing internally but maybe we can return to the roots of Ted Noffs.
“Let’s rediscover that protest not necessarily be chaining our necks to politicians fences but let’s just offer a beautiful invitation once again, to the community. To say you know, ‘what are we doing, how are we living and how do our choices affect each other?’
“I think for too long we’ve gotten away with saying if I take care of me and myself then the rest of society is going to be okay.
“That’s always been the strength and the power of Wayside, is to come and be met and to be changed. So we can take that message out further and further. And to do that from the family of the Uniting Church, is a real honour and it’s a real privilege,” said Jon.
Jon explains that rather than invent we detect our mission in life through opportunities and doors that open and close.
“Our lives have been just one series of conversations leading to the next and leading to the next. So that’s the journey into Wayside has been through a relationship with Graham, it’s been through a deepening relationship through the Uniting Church.
“It’s been through a deepening relationship with the visitors who come through our doors. As one door continues to open after another one, then our hearts are captured by this amazing mission that everyone is in awe of.
“It’s kind of this deepening sense of convictions that says now is the time and here is the place. We can be the people.”
The Wayside Chapel runs a Community Services Centre, Day to Day living programs, an Aboriginal program, the Wayside Café, an Op Shop and chapel services, all bringing together and helping people from all walks of life.
Image: Rev. Graham Long and Jon Owen, supplied.