On a recent Nav Night, in a room at the student center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Alejandra Villa raised her hand during an icebreaker game in which everyone had to describe something interesting about their footwear.
“This is Johnny,” she says, gesturing to the student standing next to her, “and his shoes have taken him across the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Everyone clapped for Alejandra and Johnny, and she beamed at the students.
Her shining brown eyes, her own laidback brown sandals, her nose ring and her unpretentious demeanor helped her blend into the group of late teens and early 20-somethings in an unassuming way.
Happiness filled the room that night, but for Alejandra, called “Ale” by some friends and students, being on staff with The Navigators has not always been so emotionally smooth.
Her decision to join the Navigators was a difficult one for her parents. It created some tension in their relationship. Yet, over time, they have become more comfortable with her life in ministry, a development Alejandra pondered on a recent Friday while sitting at the kitchen table of her West Town neighborhood.
“They’re so much more accepting of my ministry than they initially were,” she says. “I don’t know what happened. It’s God.”
Her story, of course, begins with her parents, who had known each other since they were 3 years old. Both grew up in rural communities near Aguascalientes, a city in the center of Mexico known for its ornate Spanish colonial buildings and its surrounding hot springs.
In 1988, her parents got married in Mexico. The next day, they moved to the United States.
One year later, they had Alejandra. Born in Santa Barbara, California, Alejandra moved with her parents to Yuma, Arizona, when she was five years old. After Alejandra’s birth, four more girls followed.
“It’s really fun,” she says, and then thinking of all the females surrounding her father, she laughs, adding, “I know. Poor guy!”
Alejandra found out about The Navigators almost by accident. She was spending a year of college at the University of Kansas when she overheard her roommate talking about a Navigator summer training program in Jacksonville, Fla., that included small groups, Bible studies, and evangelism on the beach.
Curious, she asked her roommate if she could attend a Navigator event, and things got started. But it didn’t start out too well. The first Nav Night she attended, “I didn’t love, to be honest. I didn’t feel like I fit in (demographically), but I did like the messages I heard about God and about the Bible.”
She adds, “There was a level of distrust because I was Catholic, so knowing that Navs was not Catholic, it was just kind of scary for me.”
She really got to know The Navigators, she says, when her roommate asked if they could host a Bible study in their dorm room.
The in-depth relationships formed by The Navigators, however, made the deepest impression a year later, when she transferred to the University of Arizona in Tucson.
The campus director there hosted an event in which he asked students to clean and renovate his family’s home.
“That seemed very unconventional, and maybe some people would think that’s a bad idea,” Alejandra says. “But it seemed great to me, and I got to know him and his family. I pretty quickly realized I had never met someone who cared so much about other people the way he did. That had a huge impact on me.”
One more relationship made Alejandra realize she wanted to make The Navigators a central part of her life and career. She had joined a Bible study led by a girl named Jillian, who was a year older than Alejandra.
At the time, Alejandra found herself in the middle of a breakup.
“For a 20-year-old girl, it’s just a really devastating thing,” Alejandra says. “For anyone, really.”
Jillian made herself available to Alejandra—every week. Once a week, they sat down for coffee and in-depth conversation full of discipleship and meaning and God.
“I wasn’t used to treating myself very kindly,” Alejandra says. “I didn’t know people who were so gracious, so I think that’s what had a lasting impact. Her meeting with me weekly and just being there with me during hard times and how loving she was toward me really made me want to go on staff.”
After graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, Alejandra felt tugged toward the 10/40 Window, a reference to a part of the world thought to have the least access to Christianity.
“Really, it was the sheer number of people who didn’t know Christ or Christians,” Alejandra says, which prompted her to sign up for iEDGE, a two-year opportunity to serve alongside long-term Nav missionaries around the world.
She was assigned to Southeast Asia, and while there, she started a master’s program in English instruction. One of her most meaningful relationships in the country, which is not being named for the safety of the overseas NavMissions staff, started when she was introduced to a young woman there who was learning Spanish. Elena wanted someone else who spoke Spanish to converse with her. Alejandra and Elena became good friends, even taking trips to Borneo and Cambodia together.
Elena didn’t know God, and “up until the time that I left, whenever she was asked whether she wanted to read the Bible, she said ‘no,’” Alejandra recalls. So Alejandra and Elena just had fun together, speaking Spanish and investing in each other’s lives.
And then, a year and a half after Alejandra finished her iEDGE ministry, she got a Skype call from Elena.
Elena told Alejandra—in Spanish—that she had accepted Christ.
“I cried for a couple of days,” Alejandra says. “It was special, too, that she called me to tell me. She knew how much it would mean to me.”
After her stint at Yuma, Matt Podszus, who had directed Navs Collegiate at the University of Kansas when Alejandra was there, reached out to Alejandra. He had moved with his family to Chicago to start a collegiate ministry there.
Alejandra, he says, was on a list of people he really wanted on his team. He talks of her sensitive spirit, her pure soul, her working through her parents’ initial resistance to her ministry, and her effortless connection to college students.
He says he suspected Alejandra’s perspective and voice would bring fruitfulness to the efforts of Navs Collegiate in Chicago.
“This has proven to be more true than I could’ve hoped,” Matt says. “I don’t think Ale realizes how thoughtful and insightful she is. She really sees people for who they are.”
Alejandra accepted Matt’s invitation to come to Chicago last August because, she says, “Ever since I’ve known Christ, I think there’s no way I’d rather spend my time than telling people about Him and having intentional conversations with people, hoping to talk about Him.”
Matt says he always tells Alejandra “her vision and leadership spring from her love from others. This is so like Jesus! God has shaped this woman through her personality, upbringing and choices to offer such a beautiful contribution to our work here. Every day I am grateful to God for leading her here!”
Alejandra has a particular interest at the University of Illinois at Chicago, or UIC, in students who might be on the margins, focusing specifically on investing the lives of young Latinas and in commuter students at UIC.
“We’re really trying to figure out how to build community among commuter students,” says Alejandra, who shares an apartment in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood with two roommates and a spirited German Shepherd mix. “I really want to see if we can build a sense of ownership from leading commuter students to realize their potential impact on the city and on students at UIC.”
The kind of investment Jillian made in her at the University of Arizona bears itself out now in the way Alejandra interacts with students on campus, from the way students open up their lives to her to the way a group of them can absorb her, almost as one of them, without inhibitions. In addition to commuter students, her heart embraces Latina students who may have interest in The Navigators but may need a fellow Latina’s sensitivities to help guide them.
Abigail Jackson, who serves on Collegiate Navs staff with Alejandra, says, “She not only knows how to help people grow, but she’s also so sensitive to how people are receiving the information. She’s always thinking from other people’s perspectives. She has such a cool perspective and just a noble heart because she’s a Latina, a Mexican-American woman in Chicago 2017. There’s a lot going on today, but I feel like she’s given the Latina women in our community such a sweet role model.”
As for Alejandra, being on a college campus speaks to both her identity as a Christ follower and to an identity that has been with her lifelong, ever since her parents gave birth to her, the first of five.
“Being on a college campus,” she says, “just makes me feel like a professional big sister.”
Written by Erin Chan Ding, freelance journalist with The Chicago Navigators.
Photo Credit, Kristen L. Norman