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.