“Christmas Day for many represents a very difficult time,” Jon Owen, Wayside Chapel’s CEO says.
“We’re all exposed to the same advertising that tells us this is the time of year that we’re supposed to have it all together, that we’re supposed to have the right presents under the tree and to be able to celebrate with family… And that really brings into sharp focus for many of our community — rich and poor alike —what’s missing in their lives,” he explains.
Owen says that if someone has lost a family member or is not welcome in their own family home their loneliness can be magnified during this season.
“Last year we had someone who joined us whose son had just been murdered and just the thought of sitting at home at Christmas Day with family just felt empty. And so she wanted to fill that void through community, and through serving, and through celebrating with us on the day, to honour her son.”
Every year the Wayside Chapel throws a huge Christmas party, in the heart of Sydney’s Kings Cross. The day begins with breakfast, an outdoor church service, before Christmas lunch and a Christmas street festival. And for the second time Wayside is also throwing a Bondi Christmas.
Owen says that whilst most people identify Bondi with glitz and glamour (and maybe some terrible reality TV!), what they don’t know is there’s another side to the iconic Sydney suburb — people are sleeping rough on the beaches and in the cliffs around it. There are also families who are struggling to make ends meet, dealing with stress, anxiety and chronic long-term issues around mental health. For these people, Christmas at Bondi with the Wayside Chapel may just be a lifeline.
Owen has been Wayside’s CEO for a year and a half, but this will be his fourth Christmas in “the Cross” serving “as many people as who’ll come and celebrate.” His wife and teenage daughters will also be there.
“The normal highs and lows of life occur for us all, but this is the time of year that a trampoline gets placed underneath them, and all of a sudden the highs are really high and the lows are really low.”
“Our kids have always celebrated Christmas with others so it’s always been a part of our family tradition,” he explains, when asked how the family feels about the event.
“Back in the early days it was with people who were seeking asylum in Australia, and refugees, and newly arrived Australians. Now [we’re] at Wayside in Kings Cross with the wonderful characters of the Cross!
“Their first Wayside Christmases… there’s nothing quite like it. There’s quite a few families that come with their kids and I think it’s a really good way to remind us visually about what this season is really about. It’s about hope, it’s about anticipation, it’s about new life, it’s about new possibilities and I just don’t think the way we’ve packaged it up and commercialised it really satisfies anybody.”
Speaking of financial matters, with Wayside’s “flagship event” quickly approaching, one might expect to see the stress of carrying the responsibility of such a significant event on the young CEO. Particularly given that the organisation relies on the generosity of the general public to respond to initiatives like this year’s “Donate a Plate” appeal, where anyone can donate a Christmas lunch “with all the trimmings” for a Wayside visitor for just $25.
But Owen appears relaxed and confident and says he’s “hopeful and optimistic”.
“Every year we look at what we need to raise and we take a deep breath but you know the generosity of Australians and particularly Sydneysiders really always floors us,” he says.
“In the past we’ve seen politicians serving prawns to someone who has woken up in the gutter that morning.”
At Christmas, with other organisations closed for the holidays, Wayside’s workload increases in every way – including funerals. In fact, Wayside conducts five times as many funerals in the summer months as it does in the winter. Even as Owen is interviewed, he has two funerals to conduct coming up and another urn on his desk with the remains of a Wayside visitor who they recently farewelled at a funeral.
“The normal highs and lows of life occur for us all, but this is the time of year that a trampoline gets placed underneath them, and all of a sudden the highs are really high and the lows are really low. But our vision is about love over hate. So we exist at the intersection between love and hate and we do that wholeheartedly, which means our hearts do get broken. But that’s the real version of love we sign up for, isn’t it? Anything else is a bit of a cheap knockoff.”
“You’re very vulnerable when you love people who are in crisis. We can’t force people to change and sometimes that means we have to say goodbye to them. What I do love about the Wayside Chapel is we throw great funerals. We honour people who so many others would have just walked past or kicked or spat on. But here they know they’re loved and so they’re grieved.”
Felicity Powell, who has been a Wayside volunteer for close to five years, says she’s learned a lot about humanity from those she’s served.
“They’ve been really incredibly kind and compassionate — like you’d from the expect workers and other volunteers — but actually the visitors are who have amazed me.”
She tried volunteering with a few different organisation before finding her perfect fit at Wayside Chapel.
“I don’t like to be corny but there’s no ‘us and them,’” she explains. “The terminology is quite true. It’s welcoming for everybody… That’s what I think gets people back and back and back constantly.”
On Christmas Day, she says it’s “even more special because you’re seeing them regularly throughout the year but then you will get to celebrate, just like you would with your own family. It’s the same, really. It’s just a bigger family.”
Owen says that Wayside’s commitment to having “no us and them” will be evident on Christmas day.
“You’ll see politicians serving prawns to someone who has woken up in the gutter that morning. And when someone supports our donate a plate campaign, we’re putting a plate of food served with love, served with care, served with dignity with all the trimmings that we all expect from Christmas directly to that person,” Owen says.
So where does he get his personal generosity spirit?
“I can’t talk about that without talking about my own faith and the journey of discipleship. We often talk about our first conversion — which is the one to Christ — and then further down the track, we often talk about the second conversion — which is the conversion to others and to community.
“So whilst my first conversion happened very early on in life going to church, the second one occurred when I was in my early 20s and I was beginning to think about how I want to live my life. And I really happened upon some of the verses from the Old Testament talking about God’s heart for justice, and creating a new world, and how we are to play a part in that, and that journey to responsibility and to caring for others.
“So I began that and what I discovered was it was just full of joy and happiness. It wasn’t about, you know, this kind of ‘service’ where you have to sacrifice and give up your own happiness. It’s actually where when you lay things down, you get them back tenfold.”
Go here to donate to the Wayside Chapel’s work.
This article has been updated from an article published in 2018.