Matt* wears a silver ring on his right hand etched with five ancient characters that means “citizen of heaven.”
Designed and given to him by his parents when he turned 21 years old and taken from Philippians 3:20, the ring in many ways symbolizes the intersections of his life. Born in East Asia, Matt spent 18 of his 22 years shaped by the Asian continent, both in surroundings and culture.
“I’ve always had role models of what it would look like to walk with Christ and make decisions based on their faith,” says Matt. “And I have always been around my parents’ friends, who also have had very deep walks with God for a very long time.”
What he remembers are a flow of guests staying the night, even when their family of four lived in a small apartment in one of Asia’s largest cities. It’s something that has influenced him to this day, and Matt often ushers friends new and old in and out of his Chicago apartment. When an overseas team of Navigators Collegiate students gathered in Chicago before an international flight, Matt hosted them, too.
Matt has taken a circuitous route to Chicago and to the city’s Nav20s ministry for Millennials and young professionals. Like other divergent points in his life, Chicago is exactly where he sensed God’s prompting.
On a recent Thursday, Matt, dressed in dark jeans and a long-sleeved button-down shirt, rode his black commuter bike from his job at a transportation company, to a nearby pizzeria. Despite his slim frame, which stands at just over six feet, Matt consumes two-thirds of a medium deep-dish pizza.
“I’m a big eater,” he says, mocha-colored eyes twinkling, in a bit of an understatement.
In East Asia, Matt went to a local school up until fifth grade, becoming fluent in the national language before switching to an international school, where he found a global mix of friends from countries like Sweden, Canada, Australia, Korea and the U.K.
“I had a lot of Korean friends,” he says. “I played a lot of soccer with them, so I know some Korean phrases.”
In high school, after his older brother graduated and moved away, God began an awakening in Matt.
“I felt like God was telling me to just bring Christ into the relationships I already had,” he said.
Matt led a Bible study on Friday nights for a half dozen guys on his basketball team, going through Proverbs and Mark.
“They would come mainly for the free food and to hang out at my place and play some games,” Matt says. “We had Bible discussion and it was a time when I really began to identify my faith with my friends. We were able to deepen our relationships a lot because they were able to understand a part of me.”
Matt knew he would move to the United States for college, but he didn’t expect at first to end up in Iowa. He had already been accepted to the University of Minnesota, resolving to study business there. He had put down his deposit. He had even become Facebook friends with his roommate.
And then, he felt God’s prompting. God, he felt, was directing him to go to the little town of Ames, Iowa, to attend Iowa State University.
Because his dad happens to be from Iowa, Matt received in-state tuition. But there was more than that waiting for him there. There was a business program which potential employers told him would allow him to apply his global experience to the workplace. But at Iowa State,there also thrived a melded community of The Navigators, which embraced Matt.
“That was the first time I really believed God could use my life to impact others and be part of his greater mission,” Matt says.
During his first year at Iowa State, Matt did a two-month program with Navigators Collegiate in which he and a group read books, memorized Scripture, shared their testimonies and delved into how God might want to use their lives to impact others.
Later on, Matt helped lead a team of Navigator Collegiate students to East Asia, where they spent a couple of months building relationships with young people overseas. Those Navigators Collegiate trips from Iowa State continue now, even after Matt’s graduation.
Matt’s arrival in Chicago followed a similar path of heeding God’s whisper. Matt had felt excited by the offer by a global rotational job program, in which he’d train in Germany, followed by international rotations.
“It kind of satisfied my own desires,” he says, “but I felt Chicago was where I needed to be.”
A few months before Matt graduated, in March 2016, he traveled to Chicago to meet Jay Neuharth, the director of Navs Chicago, and other Chicago-based staff.
“It just felt right,” Matt says.
With a lot of prayer and guidance, he said no to the rotational opportunity and yes to a job in Chicago.
On a sun-drenched Friday at his office, where Matt is part of a team that processes shipments for global clients, he turns on the company’s software platform, grinning as he zooms in on ships carrying thousands of electronics.
He has also seen his own faith growing new roots since moving to Chicago, attending Nav20s gatherings, and speaking at Navs Collegiate panels.
Navigators Chicago Director Jay Neuharth says Navigators Chicago “is led by people like Matt.”
His overseas background, Jay says, “gives him perspective that few people here have, yet he is comfortable in Chicago, and enjoys the fun here, and the diversity. He has a passion for Christ which is contagious, and he is always ready to help a friend in need.”
Matt has also dived into his community at Church of the Beloved in downtown Chicago, experiencing an unprecedented amount of personal growth.
“College was a really good time with learning how to share my faith with others and grow in all these ways and be discipled and disciple others,” Matt says. “But the Gospel of Christ dying for our sin so we can be reconciled with God, it was this theological thing for other people that I had to share with other people. But this year has been really good in understanding my own sin and my own need for the God of the universe to die for me — and not just for other people so I can tell them about it. That’s been very sweet.”
At the same time, Matt has been building community among his generation. Just that morning of the pizza lunch, a young woman in his small group e-mailed him and a few others to thank them for showing up to a barbecue and birthday party in her co-worker’s honor, who was from Singapore but had been training in Chicago.
The love and kindness the co-worker felt, she told them, wasn’t on the “average societal norms.” She asked for prayer for her co-worker, prompting Matt to realize he wanted to do the same thing for his own colleagues.
“I probably should pray more for my co-workers because I would be more burdened for them and see more opportunities,” he says.
Getting to know his co-workers has also helped him build community in Chicago. Every week in the summer, he plays with a group of co-workers on the volleyball team at North Avenue Beach.
“I didn’t realize Chicago actually had beaches” before moving, he says, laughing.
In seriousness, the city and this period of his life, coupled with his global identity, has positioned him to build relationships with other Millennials.
Chicago, he says, “gives me some form of cultural competency to relate to a lot of different types of people. I understand the struggle of not fully belonging to one place or not being fully understood or fully known because of my cultural background, so I’ve been able to relate to a lot of people.”
At their core, 20-somethings, he says, seek meaning and relationship.
“When you talk about Millennials being cynical toward theinstitution of the Church, maybe many Millennials haven’t had the chance to interact on a peer level with people who have genuine walks with Christ and not an organized, bureaucratic institution,” Matt says. “People are looking for something bigger to be a part of, and I think that’s where the gospel and Kingdom work can be very attractive for Millennials, where we’re called to something bigger, and we’re called to something greater.”
For those wanting to reach out, there’s a “citizen of heaven”— equipped with an unthinkable appetite and a smile just as giant — waiting to connect.
*Name withheld for security reasons.
Written by Erin Chan Ding, freelance journalist with the Chicago Navigators
Photo Credit Kristen L. Norman