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.