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.
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.”
“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