Discipleship in Unprecedented Times

Saturday, March 13th, 2021 // 9:00am – 11:30am CST


 

Registration is live for our annual Minneapolis-St. Paul Navigators Discipleship (virtual) Conference and you’re invited! Join us online on Saturday, March 13th from 9-11:30 AM for a gathering of believers discussing what it means to be and make disciples of Jesus in these times. Listen and learn from our speaker Pastor Robert Daniels, and choose from over a dozen breakout sessions on topics ranging from mental health to discipling kids to loving your neighbors well during lockdown.

For more information on each breakout session click on the registration button above to see full bios and descriptions. Want to see videos from our breakout leaders and speakers? Check out our Facebook page (@MSPnavigators) and Instagram (msp_navigators)!


Be one of the first 50 registrants and you will be entered into a drawing for a $75 gift card for the Minnesota Twins MLB store!
Questions? Contact our conference director, Chad Selje ()

 

Our 2021 Life-to-Life Discipleship Conference speaker, Pastor Robert Daniels, is originally from Dallas, TX. After coming to faith in college, Robert served as a missionary with The Navigators in Bowie, Maryland. He then felt called to plant a church leading him to get training at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is now Lead Pastor of Christ Freedom Church in Lewisville, TX.


"Lord, Help Me Move"

Two women hugging in a cafe. Niwana is wearing a black jacket and glasses, and Nan is wearing a pink jacket. Nan's eyes are closed as she smiles and hugs Niwana.

Niwana Johnson hurls her fists. She shoves. And then she starts running.

She sprints away from the two women she had been fighting, heading for asphalt. She leaps into the street. She doesn’t see the car, but she feels it.

The impact sends her careening into the air. Bystanders say she flew 20 feet high.   

Niwana doesn’t quite black out. It’s more of a white out.

The floating sensation, the bright light, a crazy sense of calm, all those things people talk about feeling when they die. All these sensations bathe Niwana.

The next thing she hears is the beep of machines monitoring her pulse and oxygen levels. She feels the starchy sheets, smells the sterile cleanliness of Mount Sinai Hospital on Chicago’s West Side, a 319-bed facility next to Douglas Park.

And then she realizes she cannot move.

This is her cry-to-Jesus moment, one of many in a life that has seen a drug treatment facility 29 times. But this time, she thinks, she really means it.

Help me move, God, Niwana pleads inwardly, and I will follow you.


Meanwhile more than 900 miles away, Nan Miller prays, too: Lord, I will follow you. Help me move.

She can no longer hide the effect her husband’s verbal and emotional abuse has had on her and her two sons. Nor the effects his secret life has had on their shared ministry as Navigators.

She has a friend who offers her and her boys, who are 6 and 8 at the time, a place to stay. They’re in Central Illinois, away from the home she shared with her husband in Florida, in a place where Nan could find community and support and a church.

This place in downstate Illinois, a village of a little more than 16,000 people called Morton, felt familiar to Nan, a lot like the rural area where she grew up. She packs a few bags and leaves with their sons in a desire to find honesty, health, and wholeness for her family. Believing God can still use her life, she begins to lead a Bible study in Morton with 7th-grade girls. She stays with them all the way through high school.

Later, she would uproot herself completely, driving two-and-a-half hours northeast to Chicago, from cows and cornfields to streets and skyscrapers.

She would settle in the North Side neighborhood of Uptown and start another Bible study in a building by Lake Michigan. Three years after she began, Niwana would walk into the room.

Born a decade earlier than Niwana, Nan, now 62, grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Yorkville, a small city in rural Illinois.

Her family had deep roots in the area, tracing their ancestry there to pioneer days. She joined a 4-H club. She grew up going to church.

But around 16 years old, she discovered “road drinking,” which she engaged in without inhibition.

“You go out to a country road, and you stop and just drink in the car,” Nan says. “Someone would have a bottle of wine, and just pass it around.”

Niwana looks at Nan as she recounts her childhood, her espresso-colored eyes agape, and says with disbelief, “Nan! I just can’t picture that!”

They sit together at a table in a café in Uptown called Everybody’s Coffee. A series of woodcuts and lithographs by a Virginia-based artist named Steve A. Prince hang on the walls. He has named his exhibition “Sankofa: Rebirth.” Sankofa is a West African phrase roughly meaning “go back and get”— a journey that embodies the concept of reaching backward while moving forward.  

The black and white woodcuts depict celebrations of black life and the history and trauma wrought upon black communities. They embrace the merging of the past and the present, and they feel extra poignant as they surround Nan and Niwana, given where God has taken both of them, of how He has saved them despite their pasts, and of how they are still becoming who He has called them to be.

For Niwana, just the act of breathing—of being—makes her cry.

She takes off her glasses and inhales as the tears come.

“I’m alive,” Niwana sobs. “I just thank God for breath.”

She still bears somber scars from the culture in which she grew up, where fistfights and questionable influences pervaded Niwana’s life—including drugs.     

Cocaine. Heroin. Weed.

“I was a crack head,” she says. “I smoked weed. I did it all.”

She first remembers selling drugs at 13 or 14 years old.

“Being in that environment, that’s all I knew,” she says. “That’s how I made my money. And that’s how I became my own best customer. You gotta see what your merchandise is about. That was my mentality back then.”

Her long dreads swung as she talked, some of the tips woven into small ivory shells.

“I was sneakin’ and creepin’,” she says. “I did a lot of things for drugs.”

 

 

She keeps a small silver circle on the fourth finger of her left hand and a tiny cross on a chain around her neck. She bought the jewelry when she came into a mound of cash through her dealing, before she wasted the rest of it on drugs. She wears these accoutrements to remind her of where she was, so every day she can see how far God has brought her.

A few years before Niwana started dealing drugs, Nan enrolled in Illinois State University in Normal, a city in downstate Illinois.

After moving away from home, Nan says she lost the things—like family, church and routine—that had grounded her.

“I landed on a floor of girls that really liked to party,” she says. “I just started in with all that.”

She tried to do it all, hitting up the bars ‘til late and then trying to wake up for 8:00 a.m. classes.

“A hangover ain’t no joke!” Niwana interjects knowingly.

Then, Nan got mononucleosis, and the school sent her home to recuperate. There, as she fought to recover, she prayed, “God, I’m so sick of my life, and I don’t want to live this way.”

In return, she heard silence. Nothing. Like praying to a brick wall, she says. And yet.

After returning to school, Nan discovered a senior named Judy had moved onto her floor while she had been sick.

Judy befriended Nan, which made Nan think, “Whoa, I don’t know why she wants to be my friend.”

“That’s how I felt about you!” says Niwana, turning to Nan.  

Nan smiles, continuing her story. She invited Judy to a party, but Judy declined, saying she was a Christian. Later that night, Nan would make her way back to Judy, saying, “I’ve been trying to find someone to tell me how I can get to know God.”

Judy started drawing on a piece of paper, sharing the gospel with Nan through an illustration Nan still has more than four decades later. Later, Nan realized Judy had written down a wrong Bible reference, “but it didn’t matter because I was really searching for God.”

That’s how Nan met Jesus, and one week later, Judy invited Nan to a Navigator Collegiate conference that included a Scripture-memory workshop.

Wow, Nan thought to herself. People my age are actually taking the Bible seriously.

“Eventually, I figured, ‘Hey, what Judy did with me, I can do with somebody else.’ I could help them get to know Jesus and help them start to walk with the Lord.”

 


By the time Niwana walked into Nan’s Bible study seven years ago, both their lives had taken several swerves.

After graduating college, Nan began women’s ministries and collegiate work with The Navigators. She met a man who became a Christian in the U.S. Navy. He had come to her campus on the GI Bill. He also toted a list of qualities he wanted in a wife and told Nan she fit every one of them—except she couldn’t sew.

Nan had been praying about a potential husband, but she had also been feeling a call to go overseas with The Navigators. She spent that summer in Japan.

“I came back, thinking I was going to break up with him because I really loved being overseas,” says Nan, “but instead, I got convinced otherwise, and we were engaged in November.”

They married in May, despite some of Nan’s concerns about him, and had two sons, moving around the country to serve with The Navigators.

Over the years, Nan’s concern grew into alarm. Her husband’s episodes of anger escalated into unpredictable rage. Interventions were tried but didn’t help, and eventually, Nan moved her sons away from the toxicity of their marriage and into her friend’s house in central Illinois.

Meanwhile, Niwana had been doing her dealing among familiar city blocks, unable to kick what had become a lifelong addiction. She had been shot at, stabbed, jumped, and beaten. Scuffles, violence, and drugs swirled around her.

Through it all, she had a daughter and a son. Then one day, about 13 years ago, Niwana got the news her daughter had received a stellar report card, and she dropped by the corner store for some “zoo-zoos and wam wams,” a reference to snacks and treats. On her way out, Niwana says two women she knew from the neighborhood tried to rob her. A fistfight ensued. She ran.

And then the car hit Niwana.

When she’s in the West Side now and passes by Mount Sinai Hospital, Niwana still looks up at a window on the third floor where she spent so much time, regaining feeling in her legs and learning how to take steps.

For years, she kept her crutches under her bed.

“You heal my body,” Niwana had told God in the hospital. “And I’ll serve you.”

 

 

God did his part. Niwana couldn’t quite do hers.

Desperate for drugs, Niwana went back to her spot on a West Side street and stayed there for two days, getting high—with a collapsed lung.

But when she had no place to go, homeless for the third time in her life, God took hold of Niwana.

She made her way to Breakthrough Urban Ministries and went through its programs. Breakthrough staff set her up with housing in Uptown, in the building where she met Nan.

At first, Niwana would sit as Nan made her way through the Gospels with the small group of women, not saying one thing.

She took it in, wanting to learn but feeling a little suspicious, too.

Drugs had become her life, but she had also grown up around a church tradition, too.

Niwana remembers the times she had tried to get clean, when staying sober for three days seemed like the biggest accomplishment. During those times, she tried to attend church, sensing she needed God.

When she did, she felt people’s eyes on her. She felt judgment—judgment about what she wore, who she was, what she did. Like she could never be enough.

And so she left. She went back to the drugs, to the wandering, to the homelessness.

But at some point, she felt it from her core: She wanted to change her life. If she didn’t, she thought, it would be the greatest of insults.

“After I got hit, and God healed my body, I took it for granted,” she says. “I was homeless again. But God has brought me too far. He’s blessed me to not be another statistic. He delivered me, and He freed me, and that was like me pimp-slapping God in the face.”

Nan had moved to Chicago in 2004 and stayed after taking a 24-hour walk through the streets with fellow Navigator Larry Hope, deciding she had heaps to learn from Larry, from books, from the city, and from those she saw out in the night. And from Niwana.

At Nan’s Bible studies, Niwana began to say more, to share more. Nan knew Niwana was really serious when the study moved a few blocks and nearly all the women, some of whom were not yet clean from drugs, fell away.

 

 

Nan introduced Niwana to Edgewater Baptist Church, where Niwana found a community of believers who did not judge her, who embraced her for who she is. She participates as a member there now, and she serves the church annually as a high school camp counselor, taking great joy in sharing her story and all God has done.

Nan now serves as the city leader for Navigators I:58 ministry, which engages with communities in growth and rebuilding efforts. When she moved recently to Little Village on the West Side, away from Niwana’s North Side neighborhood, the church community helped Niwana realize she still had friends who would love and surround her.

Even though Nan has moved, every other Wednesday, she still shows up for Niwana. And Niwana shows up for Nan.

They have done this for the past seven years, and this month, they do it again, working their way through the New Testament.

Since they met, Niwana has had another surgery and experiences discomfort while walking, but she has stayed away from drugs. When the pain feels awful, she’ll go to Nan, who keeps a few aspirin pills for her.

Last year, Nan and Niwana took a van to Cincinnati together to attend I:58’s national conference, one of the few times Niwana has been out of her familiar neighborhoods.

When they visited the Underground Railroad Freedom Museum, Niwana photographed a Bible belonging to people who had been enslaved.

 

 

“If they took that big Bible around,” she says, “I can tote mine around.”

Niwana has a nickname for Nan, one Nan loves because it signifies Niwana sees her as family: Lil’ Miller.

“You know what? Niwana says. “Lil’ Miller—she is my home girl.”

Through the years, their relationship has become more mutual, with Nan coming to Niwana, too, and sharing through hard times, like her mother’s illness.

“It can take one person that God brings in your life, who puts your booty on fire, like ‘I got to move!’” Niwana says, looking at Nan. “I didn’t think that was true until you came.”

On a recent Wednesday, they read through Titus over Chinese Breakfast tea and pastries at Everybody’s Coffee, a café opened by Jesus People USA Covenant Church, a Christian communal living community.   

The artwork depicting Sankofa surrounds them, an echo to reach back in moving forward.

Niwana rubs her fingers over a second, newer cross she wears, a silver and gold one. It lays next to the one she bought with drug money.

She bought it “to remind me that I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold.”

It symbolizes this new era of her life, one that saw her daughter graduate from college and become an art teacher, one in which Niwana has stayed eight years clean, one in which she wants with all her being to serve God and others.  

“Anything concerning the Lord, I want a part of it,” Niwana says. “I don’t have a lot to give, but I have me. I have my testimony. So all right, Lord.”

Nan pats Niwana arm.

“I have a new phrase for you,” she tells Niwana. “You want to hear the new one?”

“‘I am not what I do,’” Nan says, “‘I am not what I have. I am not what others think or say of me. I am a beloved child of God.’ That’s a paraphrase, from a guy named Henri Nouwen.”

Niwana and Nan put their arms around each other.

“She’s stuck with me,” Niwana says, her eyes twinkling.

They hug and their heads fall together, purple glasses next to green, black dreads mingling with blond curls. One from the city, one from the farm. One called out of addiction, both called out of abuse. Two moms. Two friends. Two stories, forever merged because of Jesus.


Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with the Chicago Navigators.

 


Laborers Celebration Gathering : This is Chicago

They sit around circular tables in groups, bent around white artist canvases they cover with magazine clippings and paint, the kind of colorful mixtures and shapes spotted at modern art museums.

 

One table’s canvas displays Chicago’s iconic “L” train and a palette of the city’s ethnicities and iconic food—hot dogs, deep-dish pizza. Another table’s canvas depicts faces ranging in age from Baby Boomers to Millennials pasted above a swath of orange-red, the color of the Great Chicago Fire.

 

Another canvas bears a cross, to symbolize Christ’s power over dark things like loneliness, even in this crowded city. Yet another held a mosaic of multicolored hands to represent Chicago’s diversity.

 

The people pouring their creativity onto the canvases are Chicago Navigators. Some are here for the first time, invited to join with this community of Kingdom laborers. They gather here once a quarter, in a space behind Overflow Coffee Bar and the Chicago Navigators’ offices at 1550 State Street, just north of 16th Street in the city’s South Loop.

 

Called the Laborer’s Celebration Gatherings, the meet-ups bring together Navigators from every piece of the city’s ministries, from Navigators Collegiate to Workplace, Navigators 20s to Nations Within, I:58 and Bridge to Freedom, Discipleship House to Navigators Military.

 

Jay Neuharth, city director of Chicago Navigators, says the gatherings have become an intrinsic part of building camaraderie between the city’s teams.

 

“We are disciples who are making disciples that are different from one another because of our ethnicity, our economic background, our personalities,” Jay says. “So it’s diverse but also unified. In order to have that unity, we have to be with one another, and it’s sometimes hard because we live in different parts of the Chicago metro area, and we work in different contexts.

 

“At least four times a year, we get together as a catalyst for that community. We have fun and are spontaneous and relational.”

 

 

Each year, the Laborer’s Celebration Gatherings, or LCGs, carry a specific theme. Last year, the planning team, which ranges from four to seven people throughout the year, focused on the theme “Keeping It Real.” According to Sara Woody, who leads LCG’s planning group, that theme centered on sharing with each other in vulnerable ways. Each meeting sought to ensure people from different Navigator ministries saw each other, recognized the work that went on in other parts of the city, and prayed for each other.

 

“We talked about, ‘What it would look like if people in the city would see what I’m doing and know what I’m doing?’” says Sara, who also is part of the Navigators Collegiate ministry on the city's North Side with a focus on DePaul University students with her husband, Justin. “It can, especially in ministry, feel like, ‘Would anyone even care if I just stop doing what I’m doing?’ I work with Collegiate, so it’s really cool to see what I:58 is doing, and what Nations Within is doing.”

 

This year, the team has turned its lens on the city itself, with each of the LCGs bolstering the theme, “This Is Chicago.”

 

“There’s Chicago, and there’s The Navigators,” Sara says, “but what’s the importance of the Chicago Navigators?” She says the creative element of that evening’s three-hour gathering came about while the team brainstormed and asked themselves, “How do we empower people to make art who are not artists?”

 

The resulting canvases delighted her.

 

 

“It was really fun to watch everyone,” she says. “They thought really deeply about it. That’s what I love about tonight. I can come up with my own opinions, but I’d much rather observe other people’s.”

 

During this September evening, the groups create, present, and explain their artwork, and then dive into a buffet of Indonesian food catered by a relative of one of the LCG’s team members, Desmonda Tambunan.

 

Desmonda, known as Monda, a hospitality student at DePaul University, looked giddy in anticipation as the group of about 30 Navigators and their friends prepared to pray and try homemade chicken satay and gado-gado, a type of Indonesian salad.

 

Of the gathering, she says she “just wants people to share and be encouraged. These [Navigators] are helping others get to know God more. Meeting people who have those same goals is very encouraging.”

 

 

Schivon Braswell, a nursing student who lives in the city’s Edgewater neighborhood, says two Navigator friends who attend her church invited her to the gathering.

 

She felt so comfortable she presented her table’s canvas—one of six that likely will hang in the offices of the Chicago Navigators.

 

“I love how real people are,” Schivon says, adding she’s encouraged by the openness and genuine desire to follow Jesus shared by the people in the room.  

 

Sara, envisioning the evolution of the Laborer’s Celebration Gatherings, says she hopes Navigators and their friends from across the city will continue to strengthen their community through the quarterly discussions and dinners.

 

 

“The groups can feel like water and oil,” she says. “You might put them all in the same room, but they still kind of separate, so it’s my hope that ongoing, there’s more listening together and more solidarity and not just, ‘This is what Collegiate does. This is what I-58 does.’ But rather, ‘This is The Navigators.’”

 


 

Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with the Chicago Navigators

Photography by Kristen L Norman

 


Jim and Darlene Conner: Chapter Two


A torrential August rain pummels Chicago, turning streets into wading pools. But inside a brick building three floors up in the city’s Andersonville neighborhood, the rain just serves as a steady soundtrack as Darlene and Jim Conner settle me at the dining room table of their apartment, offering me an array of tea bags and slabs of homemade Black Forest cake.

 

Their 20-year-old son Caleb pops in, holding their silky black cat, Max, who showed up at their door 14 years ago and never left. Evidence of their lives and their love of the Eurasian region, where they spent two decades with Navigators World Missions, peeks out from a series of shelves carrying nesting dolls depicting Jesus’s life on earth and a book about royalty in the Slavic region.

 

They sip their tea, and I scoop up the cake; the spongy chocolate mixed with cherry tastes like bakery paradise. We talk about the bumpy path they took in moving to Chicago and how they’re now tasked with reviving the Navigators 20s ministry here, unsure of quite how it will unfold but clear about their open-hearted posture of service.

 

------------------

 

Navigators in Chicago: Thanks so much for trusting us with your story. I heard you had a difficult experience with the media while you were serving in Eurasia.

 

Jim Conner: I didn’t feel like I was ready to give up my story (in Eurasia) quite yet. It was a television piece that they did, and it was really awful. It was unfortunate for me, but for several others, it turned out very, very badly. They were deported. They were kicked out of Eurasia immediately and not allowed back in. I was eventually kicked out.

 

Darlene Conner: When we tried to get a visa, we were denied.

 

Jim: It was a really, really ugly kind of situation.

 

Navigators: So you weren’t in some kind of gung-ho place when you came back to the States?

 

Jim: I think Darlene’s story and my story are actually really different. We had been in that region for 20 years, and we were expecting to be able to return, but the television piece that came out, it changed everything for us.

 

So we and The Navigators were in a reassignment sabbatical, but even in that time, I was in what I’ll call a season of discontent. That season drew me closer to God, and so there was some consolation in that. What was difficult about the Eurasian experience is it didn’t give us much closure. It was unexpected that I wouldn’t be able to return at all.

 

Darlene: At the same time, it was a natural ending for us. We were planning on going back [to the United States] for a year because that would be the year Caleb would graduate [from high school]. We just figured by the time he graduated, we’d be here for 20 years, and it would be a natural ending.

 

Our first ministry in Eurasia was to the deaf, which was my background. Originally, we were working just with the deaf and we were teaching teachers of the deaf.

 

Jim: They, the deaf in this region of Eurasia, had never had missionaries, so everything was new.

 

Navigators: Are you fluent in the language?

 

Darlene: The two guys [Jim and Caleb] are really fluent, and Jim is fluent in the region’s sign language. I can go shopping for food.

 

Jim: Darlene is very able in the language, but grammar is not her thing. She’s fluent in the region’s sign language, too. The beauty of Darlene’s language is everyone loves to see her heart. She speaks with her heart, and that says so much.

 

Navigators: That translates, right?

 

Darlene: Sometimes it does. It definitely lightens the mood!

 

Jim: In terms of Navigator ministries, I knew I was moving on, but I anticipated another two years in Eurasia.

 

Darlene: Really, we were going to say goodbye anyway. But I could go back in. I’ve been back [to the Eurasian region] three times since we came back in 2016, to Colorado Springs [the location of The Navigators headquarters] and then to Chicago in 2018. We had looked at going to other countries in Eurasia, which would have been a pretty easy transition.

 

Jim: There were a lot of opportunities for us around the world. You know, Southeast Asia, and in other places in Eurasia, in Africa. The more I heard about these different places, the less and less I was into hearing another place. So I said, “Lord, what question am I not asking?”

 

And He said, “Well, ask the question, ‘With whom?’ and not ‘Where?’ And so, I began asking the question, ‘With whom?’ And that was a really good question to ask.

 

It was then that I met Ben Nugent with Navigators 20s, and I thought to myself, “There’s no way I’m going to Chicago.” The ministry had gone through a painful transition, and so I didn’t want to have to come up and deal with that. I was like, “No, I didn’t have to go there.” So my concern was for the ministry and its state of emotional, relational and spiritual health and not the city of Chicago, which I love.

 

Also for me, it was meeting Jay [Neuharth, Chicago Navigators director] and being able to spend some time with him and hear his story. We visited Chicago a number of times and met with Jay each time. Before that, he and I talked over the phone and continued to do so after our visits.

 

The key for me was I had said some things, and then he kind of admonished me. He said, “You know, Jim, when I hear you talk sometimes, it’s like, ‘That’s the way it is.’ Are you open to other people’s ideas about this?” And I said, “I’m going to pray and think about that, Jay.”

 

I don’t think I had anybody, Navigators or anyone, say, “This is how I feel when I hear you talk.” And that to me, was someone coming to me, someone coming towards me with their language, with their words, with their heart.

 

Darlene: When it got to making the decision—and we had a sabbatical group that were listeners—to me, I felt like the Lord was saying, “Chicago,” but not being specific on what we would do. So then we went to our meeting, and Jim was sharing his feelings about his discontentment and the difficulty in making the decision that needed to be made. One of the guys in our meeting, he says, “I think you should just go to Chicago without having all the answers.”

 

 

That was the same feeling I had gotten through Bible reading and a pastor at our church. He said, “Someone in this room is standing on a precipice, and they feel God saying to move, but they can’t see what’s ahead. All you see is the down. You just need to step in faith and be there.”

 

And then when we got home from that meeting, I opened my computer, and I got an e-mail from Jay, and he said, “Okay, this is what I feel we’re offering you. He didn’t offer and say, ‘You are definitely going to be Navigators 20s leaders.’ But that was the job that was needed at that time, it was a good place to start training. God opened the door in Chicago.

 

Navigators: Do either of you have any family ties to the city?

 

Darlene: I have a brother. He and his wife used to live in the city, and as their children increased in number and they got older, they moved to Waukegan [a Chicago suburb]. It’s the closest I’ve been to a family member in a long time.

 

Navigators: Waukegan counts!

 

Darlene: Before Eurasia, we were in the D.C. area.

 

Jim: We met in D.C. That’s where I grew up.

 

Darlene: I was born in Michigan, in Detroit. My family moved to Lansing when I was 5 or 7, and when I was in the third grade, we moved to Kansas. That’s pretty much where I grew up. I forgot to throw away those ruby slippers and kept ending up back there until I moved to D.C.

 

Jim: We considered going back to D.C., but I thought to myself, “I have my attitudes toward D.C.” I know the rhythms of D.C., and that doesn’t do anything for me.

 

I think Chicago is glorious and grotesque, and I think it’s the most American city, for me.

 

It’s the working-class city, and I have no ties to Chicago at all, so I have a very missional posture when it comes to Chicago, and I think that’s an advantage.

 

The whole world sees Chicago, unfortunately, through its tragedy [of violence]. As great as business is going to go and culturally speaking, and as civilized as Chicago is, the world sees it through the lens of tragedy.

 

Every day is the same story, and they have to put those stories in [the news], because if they didn’t, it would be cold and inhuman not to report it. I thought to myself, ‘That’s not how God sees Chicago.’

 

It’s like the story of Moses. I think of Moses very much like a young kid from the South or the West Side. Moses grew up with a certain identity, and that certain identity led him to murder, and he had to figure out a new identity. And then God basically met him and said, “It’s really about you and me, Moses. If you’re willing to give me your story, you can serve me.” So that’s my posture toward Chicago. My attitude is, “I’m looking for Moseses in Chicago.” My guess is there are a lot of Moseses in Chicago. I hope I get a chance to meet a lot of them.

 

Darlene: We’ve had different styles of ministry in these 20 years, and now, we’re empty nesters. So it’s being obedient and knowing this is where God wants us but not being real sure about how it will work out.

 

The one thing that has touched me about the 20s, partly because we have a 20 year old ourselves, is seeing a number of 20-somethings make it through college with their faith intact, but many of them, by the time they’ve finished college and go into jobs, they punt the faith. Another missionary mentioned statistics showing the next generation will not gravitate toward church at all.

 

So my heart just hurts, and I’m just looking ahead: “Why does this happen? What is the church not doing? What can be our part? How can we help those who have a faith to continue to keep their faith and make it relevant? How can they see that God is in everything?”

 

Navigators: How do you go about meeting these 20-somethings where they are?

 

Darlene: We are very far beyond our 20s, though we do have investment in someone who’s 20. That was my concern in looking at this position. Will they accept us? We’re not trying to come down and be their everything.

 

We’re just trying to help them find community among their own peers and create community—not just a community in which they can have their needs met, but where they are encouraged to reach out to their new community and their jobs and people who may not know Christ.

 

I really believe that we have lived most of our lives now. When I turned 50, it’s, “How do I spend the last part?” My dad would call it “finishing well.” The thing I look back at is how much multigenerational Christians affected me my whole life. That helped me when I prayed about it.

 

At first, I thought, “Maybe I’ll go find a teaching job and let Jim handle this cause he’s younger than me.” [Jim is 53; Darlene is 57.] But it was just that idea of God saying, “Yes, they need peers, but they need people who have gone on ahead.” It’s modeled in the Bible, too, the need for community to be multi-generational. It doesn’t mean we have to become their parents.

 

Jim: I want to avoid that at all costs.

 

Darlene: I just want to be praying for them. Or being there if they need mentoring, letting them know we’re open to being there for them but really trying to equip them to be the ministry.

 

 

Navigators: So what’s your approach to Navigators 20s?

 

Jim: I’m not building anything. I’m here to listen, to learn and lament my brokenness. I don’t feel I’m necessarily the gung-ho Navigator guy. I’ve been with The Navigators since I was 19, in the [United States] Air Force. I was discipled, I did three Summer Training Programs, spring and fall conferences, missionary trips, you know, and that became my identity. But that is a dangerous place to be.

 

And I think in some ways I long to meet young people at their place of identity, wherever that is, whatever story they’re bringing to Chicago, whether that is a gung–ho Navigator collegiate alumni or whether that is, “I’ve never been to church, I don’t like Christians, and I have no desire to sit here and talk with you about the Bible.” That’s totally fine with me. Hopefully I can at least have the words and have the presence not to offend. I really do want to meet people just as they are, here at this time, in Chicago.

 

Navigators: How do you go about forming those relationships?

 

Jim: Today I got two e-mails from two people who are new in Chicago. They were formerly connected with The Navigators at some time. One is working with United and another, I think she grew up overseas. People are reaching out to The Navigators. Young people are coming to Chicago and saying, “Hey, I’m new.”

 

We moved a young woman into her apartment in Hyde Park. My dream for her is that she will want to build a community where she’s at in Hyde Park, in her apartment or maybe even through her job. If there’s a chance for me to help her think about that, to help her pray about that, to seek God, I’d like to at least be a listener in that context.

 

Darlene: They’ve each been different. This woman has joined us for church. We know we have a trust there, so even if she goes on, we can be a support for her. We have a couple that both of us were reaching out to and both of us were mentoring.

 

Jim: They were in a civil marriage, and that marriage fell apart.

 

Darlene: We still reach out. It’s just being available.

 

Jim: Mostly, we listen and learn because this generation is moving fast. I’ve been in Eurasia for 20-plus years. I missed a lot of what they’re experiencing. With this generation, I think there’s this desire to be in relationship, and questions of, “Am I going to have a job tomorrow that’s going to make me feel secure and validated?”

 

I do want to meet young people at that place and say, “Let’s meet God on this journey. Can He be found?” I hope that He will be if they’ll trust me with their story. I’ll walk with them in it. I’m not here to lead any great work of The Navigators. But I’m willing to serve.

 


 

Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with The Navigators in Chicago.

Prison Ministry Leader Photo

"I Know What That's Like" - Southeast Asia Stories

How Chicago Navigators connect with prison ministry in Asia


 

Atop a concrete wall, jagged edges of bottles, brown and green, jab at the sky, translucent in the sun. They are meant to prevent escape.

 

Behind the wall, in a courtyard, hundreds of women roam. They wear two kinds of uniforms: blue and white if they have already been sentenced, and orange if they still await their prison terms.

 

A blanket of casualness cloaks the scene. Two women in blue uniforms, pass a baby back and forth. A prison guard takes the infant in his arms for two minutes and hands him back.  

 

Another woman strolls by, her hand nestled in that of a young man, who also wears a blue uniform. Their feet, clad in flip flops, kick up a sheen of dirt as they walk.

 

This feels nothing like an American prison.

 

Two other women in the courtyard would know.

 

One, a Chicago Navigator, Mica Garrett, sits in the courtyard eyeing the women, looking for one in particular named Nat, whom she had met on a previous visit to the prison.

 

Across from her, Colleen Brinkmeier widens her eyes as she peers at several women across from her, realizing that as a visitor, she has a direct view of those female prisoners bathing and brushing their teeth.

 

“I’m glad I’m not in here,” runs through her mind over and over.

 

It’s Mica’s third visit to the prison and Colleen’s first.

 

After serving a couple of prison sentences in Illinois—and becoming a Christian while in prison—Mica started a faith-based residential re-entry program called Bridge to Freedom. Colleen, who also served time in Illinois prisons, was its first female graduate.  

 

They’re here to see if the Navigators in Chicago can forge a continuing relationship with the women in the prison here, to see if they can unearth hope in a place of heartbreak.

 

This is a prison referred to by a number, the prosaic name of this facility deep in Southeast Asia. It holds mostly women, plus young men who enter as minors.

 

Sirivuth, the head of a Christian prison ministry here, tells us the prison was designed for 500 inmates. There are currently 1,827.

 

Mica and Colleen walk amid the concrete prison, and venture into a room where inmates sit at sewing machines, working on the blue and orange prison uniforms. Though the uniforms all look the same at first glance, the women have managed some individuality. One has sewed on buttons emblazoned with apples. Another wears multicolored buttons.

 

Mica sidles up to the women and asks questions, with a staffer from the prison ministry translating: “What’s your name? How old are you? Do you have a husband? Do you have children? Why are you here? How much longer do you have here?”

 

An older woman, Lim Ny, says she’s been at the prison for 12 years and expects to leave in about two-and-a-half years.

 

Learning how to sew, she says, has inspired her to open a tailoring shop when she leaves.

 

A younger woman seated behind her, Sreytouch, says she’s been in prison for nine years. Her husband is in another prison.

 

She doesn’t say the number of years she has left.

 

A prison guard, through the prison ministry staffer, tells us the reason: She’s been sentenced for the rest of her life.

 

Still, she says she enjoys sewing, enjoys having something to do with her hands, enjoys making things, even if they are prison uniforms.

 

“This makes me very happy,” she says.

 

The vocational and training programs, Sirivuth says, equips those in prison with skills across 10 disciplines—from computers to literacy to electricity to English—that men and women can use to gain employment when they leave prison.

 

Sirivuth smiling

 

The faith-based organization has gained the trust of the government, establishing MOUs, or Memorandums of Understanding, with various public departments to set up vocational programs in the country’s three federal prisons.

 

Their classes have served more than 950 prisoners in the past year, but aside from vocation and learning, the ministry also focuses on health and nutrition, visiting foreigners in prison, assisting the children of those in prison, reintegration and re-entry, and resiliency of spirit. The latter is, in essence, a regular Bible study.

 

“Our vision is to holistically address the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs,” Sirivuth says in his office, about 20 minutes away from the prison. “Here, our culture is that visiting prisons brings you bad luck. So families don’t want to visit the prisons. Even to walk past the prisons, it brings bad luck, so they have to invite a monk to drive out the bad luck and say blessings. So we are the bridge to break the cycle of such traditions.”

 

Mica smiles several times during Sirivuth’s comments, noting the similarities in bridge-building between his organization and hers. They came at it different ways—she out of a calling from God after her own prison sentences that re-entry services needed strengthening, and him out of a realization that despite working for Christian organizations for years, he had not been truly visiting and serving those in prison, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 25—but in distinct parts of the world, they both try to bring dignity and faith into the prison and re-entry system.

 

Sirivuth continues, saying a prison official came to him with a request that the organization implement a culinary skills program in another of the country's prisons, but he wasn’t sure he had the knowledge or resources.

 

Right away, Mica’s eyes land on his. The nonprofit she founded, Bridge to Freedom, happens to fund itself partly from a catering service run by its students.

 

“We might be able to do something,” she says. “Let’s keep talking.”

 

In another alcove inside of the prison Mica and Colleen visit, women sit and stand in front of mirrors. Hot hair straighteners lay on tables, plugged into multiple outlets on the floor.

 

Women sit, holding each other’s hands, painting them with hues of blue or beige, lilac and lavender.

 

Mica and Colleen walked into the area of the prison used for cosmetology training. In seconds, a woman in a blue prison uniform gravitates toward Mica, pointing out her braids and saying, “I love your hair!”

 

The women sit us down and grab our fingers with tenderness, asking what colors we would like on our nails.

 

I choose a deep purple, the color of my alma mater, Northwestern University. Mica and Colleen decline politely—Colleen, a lover of nail polish, had just indulged in a manicure that morning—but they did sit and watch and talk.

 

As a woman in blue garb named Tavika started on my index finger, the woman who had pointed out Mica’s braids, her face curious and inquiring, sidled next to her.

 

She smiles, looks at Mica and asks, “Can you cook soul food?”

 

Mica, who once opened up a soul food restaurant in Alabama called “Just Released” and dreams of starting a similar restaurant in this Southeast Asian country, glanced at her with curiosity, answering that she could.

 

The woman introduces herself as Manvin.

 

“My husband is black,” she says. “He’s from Nigeria. That’s why I love your hair so much.”

 

Manvin adds, her eyes raw now, “He’s also the father of my son.” She squats beside Mica and looks up at her as tears pool.

 

Mica looks straight into her watery eyes. She has visited this prison twice before, and the pattern seems all too familiar: Women do the bidding of their husbands or boyfriends, who talk them into carrying bags for them—bags filled with drugs—and get caught.

 

“Is your husband the reason why you’re in here?”

 

Manvin nods, her eyelids turning crimson as she cries.

 

She talks about her son, who was an infant when she entered prison and is now four years old.

 

“It’s so, so hard,” she cries. “It’s really hard here, you know.”

 

Mica runs her hand through Manvin’s hair. She pats her shoulder.

 

“I know what that’s like,” she says, a tear trickling down her cheek. “I’ve been in prison, too.”

 

And there, amid hairdryers and nail polish and hairbrushes, Mica and Manvin hold each other. Shared experience fills the space between them.

 

When Manvin looks up, Mica gazes at her, brown eyes peering into brown eyes.

 

“You’ll come home,” she says. “You’ve got hope.”

 

Manvin inhales and nods.

 

Holding Hands

by Abigail Jackson

 

“But listen to me,” says Mica, her tone growing sterner. “Don’t go looking for him. Don’t you go back to him,” she says, referring to Manvin’s husband, who pushed her into drug smuggling.

 

“You go looking for Jesus.”

 

They hug, and Mica asks Manvin to write to her.

 

A few minutes later, Mica sits in the prison courtyard, watching as inmates hold hands, brush their teeth and pass the baby around, wondering if she will get to see the woman named Nantiya, who goes by Nat.

 

Her eyes take in the men and women walking in blue and orange, glancing at faces and hoping for one familiar one.

 

Ten minutes later, a slender woman in a blue uniform appears before her: Nat. She wears her hair to her shoulders and though she is 32, she could be mistaken for a college student. She speaks English flawlessly.

 

Mica breaks into a smile, and they hug.

 

“How are you doing?” Mica asks.

 

“I’m okay, you know,” says Nat.

 

They had met twice before, and Nat has remained on Mica’s mind. Would there be a way to help her from the outside? To contact her mother? To procure legal assistance? Mica isn't sure, but she wants to try. For now, all Mica can do is give her presence.

 

Standing under a small overhang that provides shade and respite from the 95-degree heat, Nat begins her story. She says she was born in a neighboring country in Southeast Asia but adopted by American parents and raised partly in America.

 

She confirms that she got mixed up with some men several years ago, yet when asked about the details of her case and whether it involved running drugs, she seemed vague and almost bewildered herself by how or why she ended up in prison.

 

She had been in the prison for five years so far. Her term? Life.

 

What Nat does know for sure, she says, is this:

Late in 2014, she was given a book by the prison ministry called “The Grace Awakening” by Charles Swindoll.

 

Up until then, she didn’t believe in God. She had thought of the Bible as “B.S., a bunch of stories.”

 

Yet as she read the book, she kept thinking, “What if God really does love me?”

 

And then one evening as she neared the end of the book, in this prison surrounded by concrete and jagged glass, hundreds of miles from where she was born and thousands of miles from the country where she grew up, she knew.

 

In her heart, she heard God saying, “I love you. My grace is sufficient.”

 

And Nat invited Jesus into her life.

 

Since then, Nat says she feels peace. When guards threaten to turn off the running water, Nat calms the fellow prisoners she calls her sisters by telling them to stay serene, that things would be fine. Despite the thought of an interminable prison sentence, she feels loved.

 

“If it wasn’t for prison,” she says, “I would never know Jesus.”

 

On hearing Nat recount her story, Mica nods. She reflects herself on how single-mindedly she wanted to see Nat that day, almost to the exclusion of listening to other women’s stories in the prison.

 

But then, in the cosmetology room next to the boxes of nail polish, Manvin opened up to her about her toddler son and her hardship. And together, Manvin and Mica cried. That receptiveness to Manvin, she says, may have led to God allowing her to see Nat.

 

Mica thinks about her experience with Manvin, about the plight of Nat and her life sentence, but about her peacefulness, as well, and about the time she herself spent confined by walls topped with barbed wire, where God met her, too.

 

“A prison is like a garden for God,” she says. “He waters it, and it just grows.”

 

She gives Nat another hug. She looks into her eyes. She’ll be back soon she says, and then passes through the concrete wall to the other side, with dust from the courtyard spiraling behind her.

 


By Erin Chan Ding

Navigators in Chicago

 

Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with the Navigators in Chicago. She and Kristen Norman, a freelance photographer, traveled to Southeast Asia this year to see the work being done and the partnerships being formed with the Navigators in Chicago. Stories from their journey chronicling the relationship between Southeast Asia and the Navigators in Chicago will appear periodically this year.

 


Colleen sitting across from Debra with Bibles open on a patterned table.

Colleen Brinkmeier: "Only God Brought Me Through"


Around 7:30 a.m., inside a brick house on the corner of Kimbark and Kenwood Avenues on the far South Side of Chicago, Colleen Brinkmeier gathers at a table with Debra on a recent Tuesday, just as they do every morning.

 

They pull out their Bibles, and each has brought with them a devotional, from which they’ll share a passage with one another.

 

A block away, 87th Street bustles with a Cash 4 Gold store, a seafood shop and a deli. Several blocks west of the house in this city of neighborhoods lies Chatham and several blocks east stands South Chicago. Both Chatham and South Chicago have reputations as two of the more notorious areas of Chicago’s South Side.  

 

But here in Marynook, a tiny hamlet nestled within the Avalon Park community, there are houses like this modest brick one-story home, most of them built in the post-World War II-era. The streets stay quiet and tranquil.

 

This, after the tumult of Colleen’s life before a four-year stay in prison, is exactly what she wants right now. This is Bridge to Freedom.

 

The house on Kenwood contrasts the old Bridge to Freedom apartment in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood on the West Side, which records the most violence per capita in the whole city. In the organization’s apartment there, on Central Avenue, noise prevailed at all hours. A bullet once flew in and lodged itself in the bathroom wall while Colleen was home. The police said they preferred to leave the bullet in the wall.

 

Bridge to Freedom, founded by Mica Garrett, a Navigator who was herself twice incarcerated, functions exactly as the name sounds: It’s a link for the formerly incarcerated between prison and total freedom. It’s not a halfway house, though. It’s completely voluntary; applicants go through a process to get accepted and agree to an all-encompassing faith component that includes morning devotions and weekly church attendance.

 

The first floor of the Marynook home contains three bedrooms and two bathrooms for the women in the program, and the basement level is laid out the same way for the men. A tone of respect laces through everyone’s language as they address each other: Ms. Mica, Ms. Debra, Ms. Colleen, Mr. James, Ms. Julie, Mr. Henry, Mr. Peter.

 

Born in 1962, Colleen grew up on a large farm in a small town called Fairdale in rural Illinois, about 90 minutes outside of downtown Chicago. Her closest neighbors lived a half-mile to a mile away.

 

“We had all the animals,” she says. “I knew how to do it all.”

 

The fourth of five kids, Colleen and her family raised beef cows, dairy cows, pigs, and chickens. They plowed. They grew corn and peas and wheat.

 

But in 1999, the jail and prison sentences for Colleen began. They started out short, in connection to things like stealing and petty theft.

 

She talks about being stuck in a rough, two decades-long relationship with the father of her two sons. They lived in Rockford, about 90 miles outside of Chicago. In the beginning of the relationship, she says he grew verbally and emotionally abusive. Toward the end, the abuse got physical.

 

In the middle of their time together, Colleen says she got caught stealing something for her boys, Joey, now 26, and BJ, now 31, and served a six-month jail sentence. Later in her relationship with her kids’ father, Colleen suffered a miscarriage so severe she needed a total hysterectomy.

 

During her stay at the hospital, Colleen says, her ex-boyfriend “literally moved me out of the house.” He found her an apartment, paid one month’s rent and left her and the boys on their own.

 

Colleen sitting on her bed in her room.

 

It didn’t turn out well. In the next several years, Colleen was caught committing public aid fraud and spent three more stints in jail. Things got really bad around a decade ago, when, she says, “I got caught up with the wrong people.”

 

The group in Rockford would steal checks and cavort around suburban Chicago, visiting big box stores like Walmart, K-Mart, and Home Depot, writing stolen checks for merchandise and re-selling the goods.

 

In September 2009, she told the group she would write one final check for one more batch of stolen Walmart merchandise, and there would be no more.

 

“I just had that feeling,” she says. “I was done with the group.”

 

And yet. Five months later, she got a call from her ex, saying the police had shown up looking for her. It turns out the check she wrote at Walmart was stolen from a judge’s wife; police had caught Colleen forging the stolen check on video surveillance.

 

Colleen got scared. She ran. She left Rockford, heading to Springfield for five months and staying with a friend. Another friend convinced her to head to Las Vegas, but to do so, she had to go back through Rockford. She booked a bus ticket that took her through Rockford, texted her best friend she was heading over, and she says when she showed up at the bus station, “police were everywhere you could imagine.”

 

She was sent to Logan Correctional Center for a year, and then spent three and a half years at Decatur Correctional Center. At the same time, her two sons had received a prison sentence for arson. Her whole family was incarcerated at once.

 

Her inmate number—R36357—followed Colleen around from prison to prison.

 

At the time, Colleen says, “I was still rebellious. I was still mad.”

 

Life at Decatur, she says, felt so hard. For health reasons—a hernia and respiratory issues—she couldn’t perform a job. She received $14.70 a month. She heard from her sons over the phone every couple of weeks. Sometimes, they wrote her letters. Some women in the prison treated her with kindness, every so often offering her an extra bag of noodles.

 

One day, a few weeks after arriving at Logan, she read in the newspaper that a 67-year-old man had been killed in a home invasion. Later that day, she got a call from the jail staff asking her how to reach Jim, the man she had been dating at the time. She realized the murdered man had been Jim.

 

She was shocked. She immediately went into grieving, helped by a counselor at the prison.  

 

“Some say it was a blessing that I was incarcerated [at the time of the home invasion] because who knows what would have happened if I would have been there, too,” she says.

 

Jim’s death also ruled out one of Colleen’s options for where to go after she finished serving her sentence.

 

As she processed his death, figuring out how to occupy her time in prison took the largest toll on Colleen.

 

She attended a church service every other Saturday. She joined a few Bible studies. She signed up for Bible classes in the mail. And in those long stretches during the day, she got curious about the Bible itself.

 

She would take a Bible into the day room of the prison for three to four hours at a time. Colleen had a system: Write down the first verse of a book of the Bible. Flip to the last chapter of the book. Write down the first verse of the last chapter in the book. For single-chapter books like I John, Jude, and Philemon, she devised a different method of writing verses. She wrote down verses for every single book, even obscure ones in Nahum and Numbers.

 

When she finished, she would start with the first verse of the second chapter of a Bible book. A prison guard there who also served as a chaplain challenged Colleen to memorize Romans 8:28, his favorite verse: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV).

 

So she wrote it down, and when they saw each other, she recited it.

 

In November 2014, at a semi-annual re-entry summit at Decatur, Colleen met Mica, the Bridge to Freedom founder, and Debra, who served as the program director for Bridge to Freedom for the last seven years and also lived with the women in the house.

 

A friend Colleen had met in prison, plus the prison counselor, pushed her toward them, reminding Colleen she’d be on the outside in three months with no place to go. Nearly everyone else told her not to go to Bridge to Freedom.

 

“You don’t want to go there,” she says they told her. “It’s a cult.”

 

Before they left for the day, Mica handed Colleen an application and asked her to fill it out.

 

“You’re coming to our place,” Mica told Colleen.

 

Colleen says her prison unit wasn’t happy about it, but she felt relief she had a place to go and wouldn’t be back in Rockford.

 

Then, in February 2015, for the first time in years, she changed out of her prison-issue blue pants and long-sleeved white shirt. For the first time in her life, she took a train, a Metra from Decatur to Union Station in Chicago, where Debra met her. She would become the first female graduate of Bridge to Freedom.

 

Colleen with a slight smile

 

She looks back at her life then and now realizes how hard she made things for Debra and Mica.

 

“When I first came, I was a mess,” she says. “I took them through stages where they didn’t know what to do.”  

 

She and Mica visited a doctor on the West Side who diagnosed Colleen with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. At one point, says Mica, who went with Colleen to all of her psychiatric appointments, Colleen’s doctor said she would need to be institutionalized.  

 

“He said she was too far gone,” Mica says. “If he could see her now…”  

 

Every Sunday, when they’d go to church, Colleen would dress in short skirts and shirts showing off her cleavage.

 

“They were too short for the place where we were going,” says Debra, “and I would catch her at the door and say, ‘No ma’am. You can’t wear that. We got to bring it down. Bring it down.’”

 

Three years later, everything has changed. Colleen sits on a couch at the Bridge to Freedom house’s living room dressed in a lavender blouse flattering for her shape.

 

“Now, she dresses very fashionable,” Debra says. “It’s beautiful.”

 

Her blonde hair falls around her shoulders, and her bangs have been neatly trimmed. She’s had a pedicure and her fingernails painted, indulgences she makes sure to enjoy regularly.

 

Of course, the changes go far beyond her appearance.

 

In spring 2015, Colleen had been riding to a picnic when she got sick. Really sick.

 

The driver had to stop and open the van door so she could throw up.

 

Doctors later told her she had been having a heart attack.

 

Several months later, in December 2015, she underwent a triple bypass heart surgery. Three months later, she was still at Rush University Medical Center, recovering. When she tried to go home once, she got an infection in her legs.

 

At one point, she medicated herself on prescription pain pills. It just hurt too much.

 

“I was in so much pain,” Colleen says. “Nothing was working. I was in so much pain, I even asked God to take my life.”

 

She watched television. She slept—a lot. She kept taking prescription pills.

 

“I didn’t really care,” she says. Then, “I went to Ms. Deb, and I said, ‘I need help. You need to take this medicine.’ Because it was taking over.”

 

God used those months, her darkest, weakest, most pain-filled moments, to draw Colleen close to Him.

 

“It was only God that brought me through,” she says. “Life just shined totally different. I needed to let the past be the past, and not take any more steps to go back into the past.”

 

Later that summer, Colleen got baptized at her church, Apostolic Faith Church in Indiana.

 

She’s still growing, still having morning devotions. On a recent morning, one study centered on exalting and praising God and another on doing small things with great love.

 

Bridge to Freedom funds itself in part by cooking and catering events, and Colleen helps cook for those. She also makes mac and cheese and scalloped potatoes and ham for her housemates on occasion.

 

Colleen in a hairnet and apron serving potatoes. She smiles and holds her hands in the air.

 

On a couple of weekdays this January, Colleen headed with Debra, Mica, and Ella, who joined the house in December, to North Park University on the city’s North Side, dishing out the rolls, chicken, and lasagna they had prepared for a conference on Christianity and mysticism.

 

Like her, Colleen’s two boys are out of prison now, and she sometimes visits them in Rockford. Her dynamic with them, now that they’re both out and no longer on parole, remains a bit stilted.

 

“I’m still figuring out where I fit in,” she says.

 

In Bridge to Freedom, her role is clear: family. She considers Julie Beland, her roommate and former prison-mate—they served as peer educators at Decatur together, discussing health and hygiene with other inmates—her sister.

 

Colleen and Julie will stay up late, sometimes ‘til 1 a.m., just talking.

 

“She’s a wonderful person,” Julie says. “She’s my heart. She’s my best friend.”

 

Colleen has been at Bridge to Freedom for three years now. She graduated from the program last year, and she envisions someday renting or owning her own place or staying to serve others who come through Bridge to Freedom.

 

Colleen had looked at Debra like an older sister, gentle, wise and in many senses, her navigator.

 

And then, when Debra left Bridge to Freedom in February, Colleen started leading the morning devotions.

 

“Colleen has probably grown more than anyone at Bridge to Freedom,” Mica says. “She’s grown the most—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.”

 

When Colleen first came to Bridge to Freedom, according to Mica, she couldn’t write a complete sentence. Then, Sierra Neuharth, the daughter of Jay Neuharth, the director of The Navigators in Chicago, began tutoring Colleen, and now she’s writing papers and studying for a bachelor’s degree.

 

Colleen, now 55 years old, has a dream for the rest of her life: She wants to become a prison counselor. When she and Julie left Decatur, they said there was one counselor for every 400 inmates.

 

Colleen wants to help right-size that overwhelming ratio, and she’s taking classes so she can go back to prisons like Decatur to counsel the women there. She has a couple of more years of her schooling left, but can already visualize her return through the barbed wire.

 

“When we go into prison, you’re always going through the back door,” Colleen says. “I don’t ever want to do that again. I want to be proud to walk through a front door and say I’m walking out that same door I came in on that same day.”

 

 


Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with The Navigators in Chicago.


James Kang: A Heart for Asia


 

James Kang moves through Southeast Asia with alacrity and aplomb, wearing flip flops and weaving through the streets without fear, stepping in front of the ever-present motorbikes weaving past him—often hopping on one himself—and greeting longtime friends in just about every country.

 

James had grown a silver-flecked, ebony mustache for the first time just before a recent trip, and it delighted both friends and strangers. One man who worked for Air Asia, unknown to James, even stopped him at an airport to ask him to pose for a promotional photo.

 

“This never happened before I grew this mustache,” says James, his dark eyes dancing behind his glasses in a way that makes you think it actually did.

 

He looks much younger than his 60 years, and even more so in Southeast Asia, where his friend and fellow Chicago Navigator Mica Garrett, who accompanied him on a recent trip observes, “He seems more free here.”

 

Indeed, a large part of James’s heart resides in Southeast Asia. Born in Korea, James began working in the Philippines in 1987, leading short-term teams, and he hasn’t stopped traveling to various countries in the region since. James, who is on the leadership team for The Navigators in Chicago and former director of The Navigators Asian American Network, is also working to form a kind of sister  partnership between Navigators in Chicago and one of the Southeast Asian countries where The Navigators serve (unnamed here to protect the sensitive nature of the work).

 

James talked about his life on a recent Sunday afternoon on the 23rd floor of the Eastin Hotel Makkasan in Bangkok, the city splayed out before him with its honking tuk-tuks, or motorcycle carts, and a plate of hummus and soft naan bread spread out before him. It was a bit of a respite during a vision trip he had taken with Mica and others from Bridge to Freedom, the Chicago re-entry program Mica founded for the formerly incarcerated. Seated on an outdoor balcony, James dives into his 30-year history with The Navigators, his hopes for the Southeast Asian region, and his sense of Asian American identity and the linkages inherent in it.

 

What centers you in your ministry?

 

Two passages drive me in my ministry in Chicago. One is Philippians 2, where the apostle Paul says that you should consider others as more important than yourself. The other is 1 Corinthians 6 and also in 12, where God has given different gifts to different members of the body for the benefit of the body, and not for individual benefit, but how it benefits every one of us.

 

When Jesus talked about sin and idolatry and all those things, it’s defined and motivated by self, where Jesus’ ministry was all motivated by His relationship with the Father. I spent about a year just reading the Gospels over and over again, and Jesus always talks about “not by me,” but “by the Father.” Everything was dependent on the Father, and His sense of self was almost nonexistent. I love that. I think, hopefully, this is where I can get to, and the way I do ministry is like that.

 

 

So there’s a tension I experience when I’m in the States—you have to have a strong sense of self and identity so that you can really give and minister outside of yourself and really love and serve in humility. Also, when I come to Asia, I hear, it’s not about self, but it’s about others. It’s about really considering the family, the extended family and other people around you. In Asia, they would say, my identity is based on what other people think of me or how they interact with me. In America, my identity is based on my responsibility or my accomplishments.

 

So in Asia their sense of self is really weak. At one of the classes I teach in Southeast Asia on international interviewing skills, I say, “Tell me about yourself.” They say, “I’m in school because my mom and dad sacrificed.” It’s all about other people. I say, “But tell me about you.” They say, “Well, that’s too selfish. Why would I want to do that?” It’s a very different context here. What I’m trying to do is really balance the differences. It’s really both our individual self and yet at the same time, I am really nonexistent without others because I am a part of the family, and I’m an important part of the Kingdom. That’s what drives me.”

 

What was your childhood like?

 

I was born in Korea and came to the States when I was 9, and lived in North Carolina, in Charlotte. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) wanted my dad to practice English and writing more. So they sent us to a PCA-affiliated university in Charlotte, which is called Johnson C. Smith University. It’s an all-black university, so HBCU [Historically Black College and University]. So when we went there our housing was all black. The church and the school I went to was all white. So that was my first experience with the cultural dynamic differences. That’s why in ministry, 14 years later, I was drawn to ministry with African Americans. I was a volunteer chaplain at Cook County maximum security with Mica [Garrett], the Salvation Army halfway house, places like that. Because I really connected with the African Americans when I was growing up [in North Carolina].

 

Both my parents have master’s degrees, but I was really yearning for my own identity growing up, so I read a lot of books by Karl Marx. That was before I was a Christian. There was a book [by Robert Pirsig] on Zen and motorcycle maintenance, about yourself. I was really searching. So I quit school and because I was reading Karl Marx, and it was about working with your hands, I went to become a mechanic. I went to the University of Illinois at Chicago, and after one year, I quit. I worked two years as a car mechanic. The guy fired me because I wasn’t good at it. The only thing he let me do was oil changes. I then went to Loyola for school because my high school grades [at Gordon Tech, then an all-boys Catholic High School on the North Side of Chicago] were pretty good.

 

How did you become a Christian?

 

I came to Christ through my sister when I was 24. My sister, Ruth, and a few other people started the Asian American Christian Ministries at Northwestern University. She told me about a retreat, and I went to the retreat, and I came to Christ. I was at Loyola. This was 1982. That’s how I came to Christ, and got involved with Navigators at Northwestern for two years. I lived in an apartment on Foster Avenue by campus there.

 

How did you join The Navigators?

 

I got involved with The Navigators at Northwestern from ’82 to ’84, and then I went to Dallas Theological Seminary from ’84 to ’88. While I was in Dallas, I met my wife, Janet, in Oklahoma—my roommate was dating her roommate up in Oklahoma City.

 

While I was in Dallas, I joined Navigators staff and did my internship at Long Beach State. I wanted to do church planting out there in Southern California. It was the late ‘80s, and it was a lot of transition with a lot of new immigrants coming in. A lot of young people are having Asian American identities for the first time. It was a unique time.

 

I got connected with Navigators staff there, and they said, “Hey, why don’t you consider joining staff, and doing this here.” For Asians, it’s hard, you know, because we have to raise support. Initially, my parents were opposed to me raising support, but now they’re fully supportive.

 

What are your roles with The Navigators?

 

I wear three hats with The Navigators. There’s a smaller hat within the main hat. The first hat is I’m on the Chicago Navigators leadership team. The staff team is divided into three spheres, and I oversee sphere three, which includes Nations Within, Navigators Missions, and International Student Ministries. Other than that, [Chicago Director] Jay Neuharth gives me responsibilities like communications and the staff retreat.

 

The second hat I’m wearing is as a staff member of the Navigators Missions ministry. I’m on the national leadership team. I’m the director of the ethnic implementation team, and our role is to influence Navigators Missions staff-wide so we can recruit ethnic staff to go overseas. We have more than 300 staff with Missions. We don’t have a lot of ethnics on our Missions team, just a handful.

 

Under Navigators Missions, I also coach short-term team leaders who are going to Southeast Asia. This summer, I’ll be coaching three teams with seven team leaders. So I help with the logistics of connecting with local staff. Communicating with leaders here can be quite complicated. There’s so much cultural dissonance and misunderstanding. What people hear is not what they’re really communicating.

 

The third hat that I have is utilizing my connections, relationship spheres, to pioneer more summer and short-term, mid-term, and long-term missionaries to be in Southeast Asia.

 

 

What draws you to ministry in Southeast Asia?

 

Why not East Asia? Why not Korea, Japan, or China? Why Southeast Asia? I don’t know. I’m realizing, everyone, we’re all broken. We have broken pieces, all of us. We’re a mosaic of broken pieces, that’s who we are. In American evangelicalism, the thing that I hear all the time is, “God saved you from your brokenness, now move on, fulfill whatever God calls you to do.” So there’s a huge avoidance of our brokenness. If it becomes sharp, we blame others. There’s this whole sense of having my act together in America, moving along. God is powerful. God loves you. You know, go and do great things for Him.

 

The emphasis is not on how my brokenness can be healed and influenced by others but on my own. It’s about, “You’re great. God loves you.” I’m not panning Christianity [in America]. But here, in Southeast Asia, I’m realizing among Christians, as well, they accept their brokenness, they’re not ashamed of it. As shattered and as broken as they are, they really embrace it and allow God to use that to impact the lives of other people. So it’s less about them and more about others. And that’s what I love about being here.

 

When did you first get involved in Southeast Asia?

 

I started by traveling on a team in ’87 to the Philippines and came back in ’88. I brought students in ’92, ’94, and ’98 is when we started doing it every year. My wife was a huge, huge partner in this. Now that our son, Elliott, is grown, it’s easier, but back then, it wasn’t. Back then, I used to be gone four to six weeks because I was actually leading the summer teams, not coaching team leaders.

 

The generations are so different between then and now. When I first started doing this every year, students were born in ’78. Now they’re born in ’99, 2000. That’s a huge generational difference. One of the things I really want to do is, I want them to see how God works differently from where they’re from, how God works differently among other people and cultures and how other cultures and people are all equally loved by God. Because you could take the American culture or Christianity and try to impose that on them. But we need to see other people on equal footing as ourselves. Don’t see someone as lower than us—love people equally.

 

What keeps you coming back to the region?

 

I was talking to a Navigator here in Southeast Asia, and he said, “Well, all Navigator staff, we consider ourselves a family. But in America we have Navigator relationships, family, business, co-workers, then we have immediate family, and then we have close people we have fellowship with. Everything is compartmentalized.”

 

But here it isn’t. I love that. It’s not based on the benefit I get from you. Here there isn’t a clear line between working relationships and other relationships. Like, where does the line between co-workers and just caring for one another begin and end? One of the key staff in Southeast Asia and her husband, they called me in the middle of the night, “Are you okay? We heard you had a cough.” And they would drive on their scooter late at night to bring something for me if I am sick. It’s that kind of caring that’s different.

 

How does being Asian American shape your ministry?

 

Asian American identity is quite complex because in America, you have a spectrum of Asians who just came from overseas to those who have five, six family generations of Asian Americans.

 

Asians are very group oriented. From our family, we get pressure to be part of the collective, “What would other people think?” That’s how I was raised. For a lot of Americans, it was, “What do you care what other people think?” So it’s that cultural tension, and a lot of Asians we’re somewhere one foot in American culture, where we value America, we love America, we want to assimilate but there’s part of our value system that’s very group-oriented, which is reflected in why some people think Asians are not vocal or they’re passive, or they’re not strong leaders. Part of it is they’re very collective, so there’s that tension.

 

I would say the Bible talks about both identities, or realities, very well. Paul talks about everything as your responsibility, but at the same time, the “you” that he uses is very plural and talks about group responsibility.

 

I don’t bring the intimate answers or understandings of racial dynamics in America. But I think I’m able to see the big picture of how collaboration among culture and ethnicity is really important for us as a single body to glorify God.

 

 

How can we be praying for you?

 

If you could pray, what I know and what I think I know is not absolutely true as God sees it. It’s my reality. And I really want my reality, the way I see the world around me, you know, the way I see people and culture and stuff to be more in line with how God sees it. Because I can personify my own pet peeves and frustrations, anger, and agenda and all that and make it as though it’s greater.

 

And pray for my family. I love being in Asia, but I miss them.

 

What do you envision for your future?

 

I’m 60. I have six, seven years left until I retire. Even after that, I’ll still do ministry. If God allows me to continue influencing staff at home, in Southeast Asia—to see them catching a vision—I will be very thankful to the Lord for that. I’ll be very grateful.

 


James Kang: A Heart for Asia

Written by Erin Chan Ding

Photos by Kristen L Norman

for The Navigators in Chicago


Nikki Janes: Seeking Light Through the Layers


When some people see an expo atmosphere, with swaths of tables set up by companies and organizations giving away free pens or t-shirts or other swag, they gravitate toward the freebies.

 

Not Nikki Janes.

 

Tables filled with freebies hardly ever appeal to her.

 

But one day at the start of her freshman year, she wandered the green space at the University of Illinois at Chicago, feeling the sun sting her eyes. She looked over at booths set up by dozens of campus student organizations and spotted sunglasses at a table by the Navigators Collegiate ministry. Against her impulses, she wandered over.

 

“I never walk up to these tables,” she says, laughing. “I must have been really desperate.”

 

The staff at the Navigators table gave Nikki a survey that asked some questions about her spiritual life.

 

Back then, Nikki would not have called herself a Christian. She wasn’t sure she believed God existed. Now, three years later, Nikki still does not call herself a Christian. She thinks she believes God, or a force of some kind, exists.

 

“I come from really wanting facts,” Nikki says. “Sometimes I rely on science to give me proof, but there are certain things that make me think about, ‘Well I can’t deny it, so maybe there is something bigger.’ I still don’t adhere to the foundational Christian beliefs, like Jesus is the Savior and Jesus was immaculately conceived, that the Bible [is infallible], but I’m more okay with the idea of there being a higher power now.”

 

Still, Nikki, now 21, has become embedded in the Navigators Collegiate community. She calls them another family. The ministry staff, especially her mentor, Abigail Jackson, with whom she meets for two hours a week, has embraced Nikki as she is.

Nikki and Abigail have become so close they even got tattoos together. Nikki chose a tattoo of a wave to remind her of trips to Lake Michigan with her mother, and that her moods, especially the depressive ones, come in waves. Abigail chose a tattoo of a marigold, symbolizing the sentiment from a Relient K song expressing, “I’m not the most amazing, extravagant, special person in the world, but to God, I’m chosen, I’m special, I have value.”   

 

For Nikki, Abigail and the staff blew away her preconceptions of Christians as “old white people and wealthy.” It has become such a formative part of her college experience—she’s majoring in sociology and will graduate in May 2019—she recruits her friends and other students to The Navigators.

 

“One of the first things I tell people is, it’s not your typical Christian group,” Nikki says. “They just don’t push it on you. They just meet you where you’re at, which is really good.”

 

Abigail sees Nikki in all her layers—as an Asian American, a feminist, a gay woman, an agnostic explorer of Christianity, a lover of logic, a deep questioner—and together, they have formed a heartfelt, meaningful friendship.

 

“I’m proud of her, and I’m just really thankful to be a part of her life, and she’s willing to have a fair look at her own life and the things that are so important to me, which are God and Jesus,” says Abigail, 25, seated on a black couch in her light-splattered apartment on the border of Wicker Park and Humboldt Park. “She has been vulnerable, and she has been open.”

 

The beginning of Nikki’s story in America starts with her adoption at age one by a single, white mother, who adopted Nikki from the Yangxi area of China. Her mother was raised Lutheran. Nikki says she distinctly rejected her Asian American identity as a kid, framing herself through a white lens. As for church, she doesn’t remember ever going, though her mom did once tell her Nikki caused a ruckus after falling off a church pew.

 

Nikki grew up in a western Chicago suburb, attending Glenbard East High School, and was uninterested in many activities other than drawing. During her junior year of high school, a friend invited her to a dodgeball tournament at a local suburban church. Nikki made the church’s dodgeball team, and she started going to the church’s youth group. For the first time, she gained exposure to other Christians. It opened her up and stirred up a yearning to learn.

Before attending the high school group, Nikki says she was “pretty mean” about Christianity and all other faiths.

 

“I was an atheist, and I would go on about how all religions are bad,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone that was religious, and I wouldn’t even talk to them if I did.”

 

Her mom began attending the same church because of her daughter’s connection, and she still goes to Bible study there. For Nikki, the exposure to young Christians during high school made her less reticent about checking a box in that Navigators Collegiate survey her freshman year that said she was willing to be contacted. (This actually came after she first checked “no,” but she then drew arrows pointing to “yes.”  “That’s me!” Nikki says. “Really indecisive, and then really trying to clarify everything.”)

 

Within a week, Nikki first met up with Shayna Wildermuth, co-director of Navigators Collegiate in Chicago, and Abigail at her dorm cafe.

 

“I felt badly that they paid money for cafeteria food,” Nikki says.

 

Still, they shared some of their life histories, and Nikki resonated with their openness and vulnerability.

 

“It didn’t feel like they were marketing the organization,” Nikki says. “It just felt like they were just trying to get to know me. They were telling the story about how Navs helped them . . .  how they came to Navs and how they flourished from Navs.”

 

For the first few weeks, Nikki and Abigail bonded over their love of video games, and the first few times they met up, they just hung out in her dorm and played Super Smash Bros. on a Nintendo Wii.

 

At Abigail’s invitation, Nikki says she started going to an Encounter group “religiously—pun intended.” In Encounter groups, a small group of about five students meets to discuss parts of the Bible or topical studies. In the current one, called Thorns, the groups meet to discuss assumptions that keep people away from Christianity, such as “Christianity is . . . anti-LGBTQ+,” or “Christianity is . . . politically compromised.”

 

Nikki says she first started going to Encounter groups because it gave her something to do, but at the same time, “I realized I couldn’t be against something if I didn’t understand it. That wasn’t a fair assessment. I wanted to learn about the Bible and the stories and what was in it.”

 

For the past three years, Nikki has attended Encounter every week, as well as the monthly Nav Night gatherings at the UIC campus, diving into the Gospel of John, into Genesis and Acts, and into intense, theoretical discussions with Abigail.

 

As Nikki and Abigail sit together on the couch in Abigail’s living room, it’s clear they have a deep relationship brimming with trust. They both sport short, funky hair, glasses, meaningful tattoos, and laidback demeanors.

 

Nikki credits Abigail, who is half-Filipina, with helping her expand her appreciation of her own Asian American identity. Abigail will, Nikki knows, listen to everything she wants to say. Abigail is, in many ways, a big sister who informs her, advises her, but never pushes her.

With Abigail, Nikki can pare down what’s essential. She says she has realized this about her magnetism toward The Navigators:

 

“I want to believe. I saw these people are just so happy and hopeful, and they seem to feel safe and confident in who they are, and they seem to flourish and thrive, and they owed it all to Christianity and God. I wanted to also flourish and thrive, and I wanted to have the hope that they have.

 

They’ve just been great role models. I wanted to be that kind; I wanted to be that giving. I wanted to seem to have a smile on my face all the time. They attributed that all to Jesus. I wanted to know that experience. I wanted to know that rebirth they seemed to have through Christianity. And so I was like, ‘If I just go to enough meetings, if I just learn enough, I will see the light, and I will be a Christian. I will be hopeful, too. I will be happy.’

 

My mind just so needs proof all the time. No matter how much I want to believe in Christianity and want to adhere to it, I can’t get past some of the foundational elements, so I’m still not a Christian. But I really want to be. So I keep going, hoping that one day, it’ll just click for me. That’s really the biggest thing.

 

Someone else said, ‘If you’re not a Christian, you don’t go to heaven, so you might as well be a Christian, just in case.’ I was like, ‘No. If I’m going to believe, I’m going to believe it genuinely and authentically and fully. ‘Cause that’s not fair to me or to Christianity. I can’t just have it as a backup if this is something people devote their lives to. I need to care about it enough to say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ There should be no fear of what will happen if I’m not. It should be about just wanting to know God.”

 

As Nikki says this, Abigail turns toward her on the couch, looks into her eyes, and tells her this:

 

“I’ve told you this before, but I feel like you have grown so much this year in yourself—even in how you carry yourself. I know sometimes you feel like you haven’t progressed or something, but I see it, just because we’ve been having these conversations, the depth of them, and we’ve been in each other’s lives for so long.

 

I’m not discouraged because I’m not trying to force you into anything that you’re not ready for, ‘cause if my relationship with you depended on your response or whatever, that is not me following Jesus because God loves us regardless of whether or not we respond to His love. I feel like we’ve built up our relationship enough that I’m not going to give up on you or leave you.”

 

The honesty and vulnerability between them feels so pure, even the streaming light looks clearer. One can’t help but believe Abigail will keep her word, that the sincerity and profundity between them will continue, and that they’ll be in each other’s lives — always.

 


Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with The Navigators in Chicago.

 


James Brooks: Meeting God on the Concrete


 

Six years ago, James Brooks fell to the concrete floor of his prison cell. His “cellie,” or cellmate, usually never left during yard time. But that day felt different—and it was. That day, when the call came to exercise, his cellmate jumped up from his bed and threw on jogging pants.  

 

“Where you going, cellie?” James asked him.

 

“I’m going out,” he told James. “I just feel like going out and walking around.”

 

Then it was just James, alone in his cell.

 

“That was God,” James says of those moments. “He did that for me so I could have that time with Him.”

 

Alone, with God, James felt tears burst from his eyes as he fell to the prison floor.

 

He sobbed, and through it all, he heard God whispering to him.

 

“He was telling me, ‘You said you’re ready.’” James says. “’You said you want to change.’”

 

James realized he did. His mother had wanted this for James his whole life, but at that moment, at nearly 60 years old, James wanted it for himself.

 

On his bare knees, he acquiesced. He opened his heart.

 

“I surrendered to God,” he says. “It was so beautiful.”

 

Life did not always look so beautiful for James, even when he did not find himself surrounded by concrete floors and metal bars.

 

James grew up on the West Side of Chicago, in the Lawndale neighborhood.

 

Born right in the middle of five kids—James has two older sisters and a younger sister and brother—he came of age in the 1960s. He remembers Lawndale as a neighborhood where people cared about each other and hung out, talking on their stoops.

 

In 1966, he lived a half-mile away from Martin Luther King Jr. when King bolstered the Chicago Freedom Movement by renting an apartment on South Hamlin Avenue to highlight racial inequities in housing and economics.

 

One day, while walking along 16th Street and Ridgeway Avenue, James says he ran into King.

 

“You’re a great man!” he blurted out.

 

He shook King’s hand, and King replied, “God bless you, son.”  

 

At Farragut Career Academy High School, James considered himself a jock, playing wide receiver and a defensive end so well he contemplated college football and just maybe, a career in the National Football League.

 

That ended when, at 18, he and his high school sweetheart found out they were pregnant.

 

“You got her pregnant,” James says his dad told him. “Your duty as a man is to marry her.”

 

So in 1971, James dropped out of high school and got married.

 

His young wife had their baby, a son. But the baby came too early and died.

 

“He was too small,” James says. “He didn’t have a name yet.”

 

He and his wife’s fledgling marriage disintegrated.

To earn money, James turned to something he had done for his father since he turned 10 years old: paint.

 

His father owned a family painting business, Brooks and Company, and the strong smell of paint compounds had been an integral part of James’s boyhood.

 

His uncles painted. His brother painted. He painted.

 

In 1975, James’s father died, and the family business fell to him. Shortly afterward, family infighting broke the business apart.

 

James joined the Painters District Council, the union that ensured decent pay and steady work. He’d stay with it for more than three decades.

 

During this time, the crack cocaine epidemic raked through America’s urban areas, and James became one of tens of thousands who got hooked.

 

He dealt crack. He smoked crack. And it led him to stronger drugs, like heroin.

 

He stayed in that world because of his habit. He kept at it because he saw easy money. By that time he had two daughters and he still dabbled in painting. But he couldn’t function without drugs.

 

Money from painting wasn’t enough.

 

So he stole—frequently and prolifically.

 

“I used to stick people up,” he says. “I needed to support my habit.”

 

Once, as he exited a motel with wads of cash, a clerk tried to stop him. He says she reached for him, he rushed out, and she fell and “busted her knee.”

 

James was charged and convicted of aggravated robbery and served his first prison sentence.

 

Several years later, James found work in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, the idyllic town that is home to Wheaton College, which has such alumni as Christian giants Billy Graham and Jim and Elisabeth Elliott. The town also harbors a reputation as the epicenter of churches. James, with his affable smile and gentle demeanor, blended in, gaining the trust of people for whom he painted.

 

Except drugs still shadowed him.

 

He would burglarize houses in Wheaton—“I learned how to disarm alarm systems and all that stuff”—and then go into Chicago to meet up with his drug contacts.

 

When those who knew him found out the charges against him, they were in disbelief.

 

“Not Mr. Brooks,” they would respond in surprise.

 

“People just loved me,” James says.  

 

He estimates he committed 33 burglaries in Wheaton. In 2010, he got caught for three of them. James, in his late 50s then, would spend the next six years in prison.

 

It started badly. James got in a fight with a cellmate inside of Lawrence Correctional Center in Sumner, a rural community in Illinois, and stabbed him because “he stole from me.”

 

Actual knives, of course, were contraband, so he fashioned his own weapons out of things like gum and bits of wax.

 

Then his mother, who was well into her 90s, died. Imprisoned, he could not attend her funeral.

 

But in thinking about his mother, he remembered how she raised him in the church. It had been head knowledge back then, and the message of Jesus’s death and resurrection for James had not struck his soul.

 

Until that day on the prison floor in April 2012, when James’s “cellie” went out for a walk. After James’s personal miracle of the heart in his prison cell, James found ample opportunity for spiritual development while in prison. He found a community of other Christians willing to invest in him. He got his GED, or high school general equivalency diploma. He joined a Bible study that met every day.

“You got a lot of people in prison who are saved,” he says. “Although they’re incarcerated, they’re free.”

 

As 2016 neared, a friend approached him, holding out a pamphlet for Bridge to Freedom, a faith-based residential re-entry program founded by Mica Garrett, now on staff with The Navigators, who also spent time incarcerated and experienced the transforming love of Christ while in prison. After having to forge her own re-entry experience without much outside support, she has resolved to do better for those going through something similar.  

 

While still in prison, James filled out the application for Bridge to Freedom and wrote Mica a three-page letter sharing his story.

 

Two weeks later, she responded, telling him, “You’ve got a place to come to.”

 

These days, James lives in a quaint brick house used by Bridge to Freedom on the far South Side of Chicago. His live-in residential mentor, Peter Berghoff, whom James calls his best friend, spends time discussing the Bible with James. They do devotions nearly every day.

 

“When you come to that program, everyone is one,” he says. “We’re there to serve God.”

 

He smiles at the memory of the time he first stepped inside his new home church, Beverly Covenant Church, and realized he was not only the sole black man but also the youngest person there. All the others, he says, were white and in their 70s.

 

Still, they accepted James with warmth into their congregation, and he now worships and serves there.

 

At Bridge to Freedom, he helps prepare food when the organization is asked to cook for events. (Catering is part of how Mica fundraises for the organization.) At a recent Chicago Navigators event on a South Side beach, James did all the barbecuing.

 

During weekdays, James works—once again with paintbrushes.  

 

On a Tuesday afternoon several weeks ago, James stood on the first step of a ladder on the second floor of a brick condominium building in Oak Park, just minutes from where he grew up in Lawndale. A paint color called Wilmington Tan splatters his loafers and white work clothes as he applies it just under the crown molding of the two-bedroom condominium.

 

It’s there where he chats while he paints, joking he can do both because “I’m just that talented.”

 

 

James gives a smile as wide as a semi-truck, and calls himself “still a work in progress.”

 

He has struggled with his health, from vascular disease requiring heart stents, from colon cancer—from which he has recovered—and the remnants of three gunshot wounds collected during his “druggie days.” He says if one of the bullets had hit him three centimeters over, he could have been paralyzed. Now, though, in his mid-60s, he reaches up and paints, as limber as a man in his 30s.

 

At the Bridge to Freedom house, Mica says it’s “huge” that James has taken to mentoring the two other men going through a similar re-entry program.

 

“He has walked by faith within the program,” she says, adding he’s eager to follow advice from his own mentors, like Peter.

 

 

Though James officially graduated from Bridge to Freedom in January, he says he plans on spending another year at the house and painting in Chicago in order to make sure he has enough savings to retire. He wants to move to San Antonio, where a brother and a sister live.

 

Though he didn’t have much of a past relationship with his two daughters, now in their 40s, he says “they’re proud of me—now.”

 

His boss, Kevin, took a chance on him, even with his past felonies, because he trusted him. Kevin isn’t a Christian, James says, but he says they talk all the time about God.

 

James has quit drugs, and doesn’t touch the cigarettes he once smoked either. He says in prison, he couldn’t access the drugs he once craved. After his salvation moment in his prison cell, he says he lost any desire to pick back up with his drug habit.

 

“If it hadn’t been for prison, I might have been dead by now,” he says. “Prison saved my life.”

 

James pauses and sits on the windowsill of the condo he’s painting in Oak Park. The sunlight hits the snow outside, streams through the glass and bounces off the paint tarps inside. It illuminates James’s face, which for a few moments, glows.

 

He looks up, and smiles. No burdens seem to weigh on him, and he looks, as much as a man can, at peace.

 

“My transition has been beautiful,” he says. “God is holding me.”


 

Story by Erin Chan Ding

Photos by Kristen L Norman


Sonja sitting in a chair.

Sonja Sampson: Escaping the Darkness


Sonja Sampson stood at a bus stop in Englewood and closed her eyes.

 

When she did, she tried to envision her future. She saw nothing. Just darkness. Just a blanket of black.

 

She tried again. She wanted to see something, to envision anything.

 

“You know, when you close your eyes, you might see somebody running past?” she says now, 15 years later. “It was just plain, jet black. I hoped something would come, but it never came.”

 

That scared her. Her life up until then had been a swirl of drugs and parties. It got so bad she lost custody of her four kids. But losing them did not compel her to change. The darkness, however, did.

 

January 13, 2002. That was the day at the bus stop. The blackness shook Sonja to her depths. She called her father, who picked her up and drove her to a drug rehabilitation center.

 

She had tried before and been in and out of drug treatment centers. But this time, at Haymarket Center’s West Loop location, it stuck. She didn’t want to go back to the blackness.  

 

It had been well over a decade since the very first time Sonja got high.

 

“The bottom is the moment you take that first hit,” she says. “That’s the bottom right there.”

 

It started when she was a teenager with weed. She moved to crack and to cobbled-together drug cocktails, cut with nail polish or even embalming fluid.

 

“It was an escape,” she says.

 

Childhood, for Sonja, was harsh. Her mom called her and her sister cruel  names. She swore at them.  

 

“They were real strict,” Sonja says of her mom and grandma, who said she could rarely leave the house as a child. “As soon as we were able to, we were up and out.”

 

Sonja was 16 years old when she had her first child; a couple of years later, she had her second. Shortly after that, the father of her children was shot and killed.

 

“That’s when everything started to spiral down,” she says.  

 

Sonja spent her life all over Englewood, at 54th and Aberdeen Streets, 57th and Elizabeth Streets and then at 51st and Bishop Streets.

 

“51st and Bishop was the hardest turn in my life,” she says. “Everyone on the whole block was doing drugs and drinking.”

 

 

Sonja stood there on a recent Monday afternoon, dressed in black and gesturing while standing in a vacant lot of overgrown grass. She gazes across the grounds, an arm gesturing, her brown eyes peering through ebony glasses and letting memories wash over her in the spot where she used to live, when the drug addiction started and her kids were taken away.

 

Here, too, she had to deal with her first husband.

 

The first time he hit Sonja was their wedding day.

 

“I had on a certain outfit and had a couple of buttons loose,” she says, “and he said, ‘We’re married now, button it up!’”

 

He pushed her, hit her. Sometimes, she would fight back.

 

“It was straight up like men in a street fight,” she says. “It was terrifying.”

 

She found out her husband was manic depressive. The abuse continued. But she stayed, partly because she found out she was pregnant and partly because she craved the company.

 

“I was so scared of growing old alone,” she says.

 

Together, they continued with the drugs.

 

“He wanted to get high, so I got high with him, and it led to me not wanting to stop.”

 

Her husband, she says, had two other children outside of their marriage. A few years later, he served her with divorce papers, and Sonja was relieved.

 

Still, the drug addiction continued. During this period, she dabbled in petty crime, racking up a record and jail stints for retail theft. One day, her sister called the police when Sonja left her children at home to go get high. Her youngest child was not yet in kindergarten.

 

“I can’t believe I was so strung out that I left them alone,” she says. “I was confused. It was my fault.”

 

Her kids would be gone for seven years.

 

It wasn’t until after Sonja’s stay at the Haymarket Center—she spent six months in treatment and six months in recovery—that Sonja got her kids back from foster homes and extended family members.

 

 

Getting them back was an adjustment.

 

“It was something I wasn’t used to,” she says. “It was all four of them, plus a grandchild.”

 

Sonja started work as a cashier at a neighborhood McDonald’s. Four years later, she got another job behind the cash registers at a neighborhood Burger King.

 

“Working in fast food is horrible,” she says, citing the environment.

 

After seven years at Burger King, Sonja needed to take a few months off for knee surgery. After she healed, she showed up at Burger King, ready to resume work, only to find out her boss hadn’t held her job.

 

“I cried,” she said.

 

Her second husband, Stephen Giddens, who treated her well, picked her up.

 

Soon after, she happened to grab a flyer. It had information for Breaking Ground, a program of I-58, a mission of The Navigators focused on investing in and lifting up under-resourced communities. Sonja went through the APL Teaching Factory, a vocational program at Breaking Ground. (APL stands for “A Planting of the Lord” from Isaiah 61:3.) She was trained on computer skills and nabbed her APL certificate.

 

“I liked Breaking Ground most because of the spiritual aspect it had,” Sonja says, citing support from mentors like longtime staffer Connie Milton.

 

“I remember leaving [Breaking Ground] and being like, ‘There’s something still missing,’” she continues. “It made me realize God was missing out of my life. I had a good husband, nice friends, but without God, life was a wreck.”

 

At the same time, Sonja went searching for a neighborhood church. Her permanent worship home, she resolved, would be the first church in which someone took the time to greet her.

 

She went to about three churches where no one said anything to her. And then, when she was about to give up, it happened at Bread of Life Missionary Church on 63rd Street: a woman reached out with a smile and words of welcome.

 

Months later, she and her husband were baptized there.  

 

“That spirituality was something I never had,” Sonja says of the guidance she received at Breaking Ground and at her local church.

 

Sonja, now a grandmother of four, loved Breaking Ground so much she went back to volunteer about two years ago, performing janitorial services. Shortly after, Doug Welliver, the former chief operating officer at Breaking Ground, hired and trained her.

 

“Sonja was a valuable team member,” Welliver says. “She assumed ownership of the jobs she was given and proactively looks for opportunities to save money or otherwise strengthen the organization. She was also very teachable and humble.”

 

Sonja says she was awestruck at where her career went with Breaking Ground. She has a job now in which, unlike her years at the fast food restaurants, she gets the chance to sit at a desk. Not only that, she works with computers daily and has a role in transforming lives like hers.

 

“I still can’t believe it,” says Sonja, 50. “I didn’t have a high education. I never looked forward to a future. When it was, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ It was, ‘Hopefully alive!’”

 

Sonja worked at Breaking Ground for five years, ultimately becoming assistant to the chief operating officer. More recently, she became a home health aide, a job she credits Breaking Ground with helping her qualify for when a lawyer provided by the organization helped her through the process of expunging her criminal record. She was able to do this expungement under state law but credits Breaking Ground with giving her the courage to pursue it.

 

At about the same time Sonja volunteered and then began work at Breaking Ground, Sonja experienced heartbreaking loss. In the course of three months, her mother, father-in-law, and cousin died. And then in August 2015, as the result of an infection in his gum, her husband had a massive heart attack. He died, too.  

 

 

Breaking Ground staffers attended her mother’s and husband’s funerals and provided emotional support. She goes to therapy regularly at an office a couple of miles east of her brick house near 63rd Street.

 

“If it wasn’t for me getting into Breaking Ground, I probably would have been still miserable with my husband passed,” she says. “I probably would have went back to drugs.”

 

Her dream now, she says, is to watch her grandkids grow. On her kitchen wall in Englewood, she’s taped a collection of index cards, each one containing her granddaughter’s spelling words: big, see, number, people. She wants to mentor her grandkids, to steer them toward a journey different from her own. She has lived a life filled with pain, yes, but also one abounding with redemption.

 

“I don’t say that Breaking Ground saved my life,” she says. “I say they made me realize my life was worth saving.”    

 

Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with Chicago Navigators.