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.


Artist in a studio with back turned

Acting Like Jesus

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A Professional Big Sister

            On a recent Nav Night, in a room at the student center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Alejandra Villa raised her hand during an icebreaker game in which everyone had to describe something interesting about their footwear.


“This is Johnny,” she says, gesturing to the student standing next to her, “and his shoes have taken him across the Golden Gate Bridge.”


Everyone clapped for Alejandra and Johnny, and she beamed at the students.


Her shining brown eyes, her own laidback brown sandals, her nose ring and her unpretentious demeanor helped her blend into the group of late teens and early 20-somethings in an unassuming way.


Happiness filled the room that night, but for Alejandra, called “Ale” by some friends and students, being on staff with The Navigators has not always been so emotionally smooth.



Her decision to join the Navigators was a difficult one for her parents. It created some tension in their relationship. Yet, over time, they have become more comfortable with her life in ministry, a development Alejandra pondered on a recent Friday while sitting at the kitchen table of her West Town neighborhood.


“They’re so much more accepting of my ministry than they initially were,” she says. “I don’t know what happened. It’s God.”


Her story, of course, begins with her parents, who had known each other since they were 3 years old. Both grew up in rural communities near Aguascalientes, a city in the center of Mexico known for its ornate Spanish colonial buildings and its surrounding hot springs.


In 1988, her parents got married in Mexico. The next day, they moved to the United States.


One year later, they had Alejandra. Born in Santa Barbara, California, Alejandra moved with her parents to Yuma, Arizona, when she was five years old. After Alejandra’s birth, four more girls followed.


“It’s really fun,” she says, and then thinking of all the females surrounding her father, she laughs, adding, “I know. Poor guy!”


Alejandra found out about The Navigators almost by accident. She was spending a year of college at the University of Kansas when she overheard her roommate talking about a Navigator summer training program in Jacksonville, Fla., that included small groups, Bible studies, and evangelism on the beach.


Curious, she asked her roommate if she could attend a Navigator event, and things got started. But it didn’t start out too well. The first Nav Night she attended, “I didn’t love, to be honest. I didn’t feel like I fit in (demographically), but I did like the messages I heard about God and about the Bible.”


She adds, “There was a level of distrust because I was Catholic, so knowing that Navs was not Catholic, it was just kind of scary for me.”


She really got to know The Navigators, she says, when her roommate asked if they could host a Bible study in their dorm room.


The in-depth relationships formed by The Navigators, however, made the deepest impression a year later, when she transferred to the University of Arizona in Tucson.


The campus director there hosted an event in which he asked students to clean and renovate his family’s home.


“That seemed very unconventional, and maybe some people would think that’s a bad idea,” Alejandra says. “But it seemed great to me, and I got to know him and his family. I pretty quickly realized I had never met someone who cared so much about other people the way he did. That had a huge impact on me.”


One more relationship made Alejandra realize she wanted to make The Navigators a central part of her life and career. She had joined a Bible study led by a girl named Jillian, who was a year older than Alejandra.


At the time, Alejandra found herself in the middle of a breakup.


“For a 20-year-old girl, it’s just a really devastating thing,” Alejandra says. “For anyone, really.”


Jillian made herself available to Alejandra—every week. Once a week, they sat down for coffee and in-depth conversation full of discipleship and meaning and God.


“I wasn’t used to treating myself very kindly,” Alejandra says. “I didn’t know people who were so gracious, so I think that’s what had a lasting impact. Her meeting with me weekly and just being there with me during hard times and how loving she was toward me really made me want to go on staff.”


After graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, Alejandra felt tugged toward the 10/40 Window, a reference to a part of the world thought to have the least access to Christianity.


“Really, it was the sheer number of people who didn’t know Christ or Christians,” Alejandra says, which prompted her to sign up for iEDGE, a two-year opportunity to serve alongside long-term Nav missionaries around the world.


She was assigned to Southeast Asia, and while there, she started a master’s program in English instruction. One of her most meaningful relationships in the country, which is not being named for the safety of the overseas NavMissions staff, started when she was introduced to a young woman there who was learning Spanish. Elena wanted someone else who spoke Spanish to converse with her. Alejandra and Elena became good friends, even taking trips to Borneo and Cambodia together.


Elena didn’t know God, and “up until the time that I left, whenever she was asked whether she wanted to read the Bible, she said ‘no,’” Alejandra recalls. So Alejandra and Elena just had fun together, speaking Spanish and investing in each other’s lives.


And then, a year and a half after Alejandra finished her iEDGE ministry, she got a Skype call from Elena.


Elena told Alejandra—in Spanish—that she had accepted Christ.


“I cried for a couple of days,” Alejandra says. “It was special, too, that she called me to tell me. She knew how much it would mean to me.”




After her stint at Yuma, Matt Podszus, who had directed Navs Collegiate at the University of Kansas when Alejandra was there, reached out to Alejandra. He had moved with his family to Chicago to start a collegiate ministry there.


Alejandra, he says, was on a list of people he really wanted on his team. He talks of her sensitive spirit, her pure soul, her working through her parents’ initial resistance to her ministry, and her effortless connection to college students.


He says he suspected Alejandra’s perspective and voice would bring fruitfulness to the efforts of Navs Collegiate in Chicago.


“This has proven to be more true than I could've hoped,” Matt says. “I don't think Ale realizes how thoughtful and insightful she is. She really sees people for who they are.”


Alejandra accepted Matt’s invitation to come to Chicago last August because, she says, “Ever since I’ve known Christ, I think there’s no way I’d rather spend my time than telling people about Him and having intentional conversations with people, hoping to talk about Him.”


Matt says he always tells Alejandra “her vision and leadership spring from her love from others. This is so like Jesus! God has shaped this woman through her personality, upbringing and choices to offer such a beautiful contribution to our work here. Every day I am grateful to God for leading her here!"


Alejandra has a particular interest at the University of Illinois at Chicago, or UIC, in students who might be on the margins, focusing specifically on investing the lives of young Latinas and in commuter students at UIC.


“We’re really trying to figure out how to build community among commuter students,” says Alejandra, who shares an apartment in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood with two roommates and a spirited German Shepherd mix. “I really want to see if we can build a sense of ownership from leading commuter students to realize their potential impact on the city and on students at UIC.”



The kind of investment Jillian made in her at the University of Arizona bears itself out now in the way Alejandra interacts with students on campus, from the way students open up their lives to her to the way a group of them can absorb her, almost as one of them, without inhibitions. In addition to commuter students, her heart embraces Latina students who may have interest in The Navigators but may need a fellow Latina’s sensitivities to help guide them.


Abigail Jackson, who serves on Collegiate Navs staff with Alejandra, says, “She not only knows how to help people grow, but she’s also so sensitive to how people are receiving the information. She’s always thinking from other people’s perspectives. She has such a cool perspective and just a noble heart because she’s a Latina, a Mexican-American woman in Chicago 2017. There’s a lot going on today, but I feel like she’s given the Latina women in our community such a sweet role model.”


As for Alejandra, being on a college campus speaks to both her identity as a Christ follower and to an identity that has been with her lifelong, ever since her parents gave birth to her, the first of five.


“Being on a college campus,” she says, “just makes me feel like a professional big sister.”



Written by Erin Chan Ding, freelance journalist with The Chicago Navigators.

Photo Credit, Kristen L. Norman



Chicago On Their Hearts

-how God moved a pair of newlyweds from Kansas City to the Windy City to make disciples-


The whisper from God for Sarah Gummig came four and a half years ago, when one of her best friends died.


A drunk driver killed her friend, Michelle, in a car accident.


At the time, Michelle, 24, had been lonely, Sarah remembered. She had wanted a Christ follower to pour into her when she was in college, but she couldn’t find anyone through any of the Christian organizations on campus. So she drifted.


Sarah, a few years out of college by then, had been working in the corporate world in merchandising and then banking. But after Michelle’s death, God called her back to the college campus.


“I wanted to be available to really lonely women,” says Sarah, now 29, sitting on her carpet in Lakeview next to her 15-month-old daughter, Adelyn, who crawled next to her. “I wanted to be with women who felt like nobody else had time for them.”


Women like Michelle.



So began Sarah’s dive into working with The Navigators, something she had wanted to do since college, when The Navigators collegiate ministry at Northwest Missouri State University had poured into her.


God also used The Navigators to introduce Sarah to her husband, Brad.


Brad, like Sarah, grew up going to church. “I knew the right answers, I knew what to say and when to say it.”


But Brad turned into a bit of a party guy, especially in high school. Most of his friends went to the University of Missouri in Columbia, joined fraternities and continued to party. And in the beginning of his freshman year, Brad made plans to leave Northwest Missouri State and join them.


If he had done that, “I think my life would have looked a lot different,” says Brad, now 28.


His parents insisted he spend at least one year at Northwest Missouri State, essentially out of principle in honoring his commitment to attend.  By the time the year was up, he had made new friends and decided to stay. Even more, he met Jesus.


For Brad, it started with filling out a spiritual interest survey for The Navigators. And then came a relentless first-year Nav staffer.


“For lack of a better term, he just kind of came to my door and harassed me and finally got me to a Nav Night and a Bible study,” Brad says. “For the first time, I saw guys that had a real relationship with Jesus.”


Sarah, meanwhile, felt God tugging her toward ministering to women in sororities. She soon realized she wanted to join the Greek system to make the kind of impact she wanted. “There’s a bond, like you’re sisters.”


Through a friend’s connection, she became a part of Sigma Sigma Sigma.


“It was definitely a cool sorority, but it was very broken—a lot of drugs, a lot of sex, a lot of partying,” Sarah says.


Sarah began praying for a helper in reaching Greek students, especially a guy. Then, in fall 2008, Sarah and Brad were both asked to emcee the weekly Nav Night on campus.


Soon after, Brad joined Sigma Phi Epsilon. He confesses that a year earlier he would have joined a fraternity “for booze and parties and girls.” But after his freshman year, Brad wanted to join so he could share Jesus with other guys in the Greek system.


Brad was the answer to Sarah’s prayers, in more than one way.


“We just fell in love,” Sarah says. “What should have taken 20 minutes to plan (for Nav Night), we’d always draw out to four hours.” Plus, he became a real partner in spreading the gospel.


A week after Brad graduated, they got married. Sarah had graduated the year before.


Throughout most of their college years, Brad and Sarah planned to join The Navigators full-time after graduation. They went to summer trainings to prepare. But during his senior year, God called Brad to full-time work in the business world.


After graduation they moved to Kansas City, and Brad took a job doing information technology in health care while Sarah took a job in merchandising, before transitioning to work at a bank two years later. Brad and Sarah faithfully ministered to their co-workers through Bible studies and fellowship. But in 2012, they both felt a similar tug.


“We had wonderful relationships with people, getting to share the gospel with people,” Sarah says. “But God was just slowly like, ‘Hey, yeah, there’s young professionals here, but there are other places I want you to trust me with.’ God placed the city of Chicago in our hearts.”


Neither of them had any real connection to the city. Sarah had visited once, for a merchandising trip during college. Brad had gone to Chicago for a concert and made a couple of other short visits.


Still, after giving their family in Kansas City time to digest the news, the couple moved to Chicago in January 2014 on an Amtrak train, lugging four giant suitcases in the middle of a snowstorm.


Sarah says, “It sounds silly now, but it was really of God.”


Brad entered the Chicago corporate world. There are stressors to his job with Strata Decision Technology, where he has a managerial role. His life, he says, has gone “from a walk to a jog, to a full sprint.”


The pressure from work—he’s often up at 1 a.m. with his laptop—has necessitated steps back to reflect and process. And to make more adjustments. Just that afternoon, he and Sarah say, they resolved to “live a quiet and humble life for God.”


At the same time, God has enabled Brad to minister in the workplace.


“From my vice president down to every team member, they are family,” he says. “Not only have they embraced me, but they have also welcomed Sarah and Adelyn into this family as well.”


The bonds with his co-workers, Brad says, have deepened in such a way that he and Sara “care deeply about their souls. As a couple, we have had the opportunity to share our lives, hearts, and the gospel with a handful of these co-workers in hopes they would be adopted into the Kingdom as brothers and sisters.”


When the Gummigs first moved to Chicago, there was just the beginnings of a Navigator collegiate movement. Matt and Kori Podszus had moved to Chicago from Kansas a year earlier to launch The Navigators collegiate ministry. They started with the University of Illinois at Chicago, or UIC.


Sarah joined the pioneering team on campus—Brad started attending a Friday morning Bible study with Matt and some other young professionals who had recently moved to Chicago. Sarah began spending time weekly on the UIC campus. In the early days, Sarah, Matt, a volunteer named Marissa, who had been involved with The Navigator ministry at NYU, and a former staff member, Andrew Loewen, spent time at the UIC campus trying to build connections through spiritual surveys and initiating conversations.


At first, Sarah says, “it didn’t seem as though much was coming of my efforts.”


Then, in 2014, Sarah met Kjerstin Berg.


“She was definitely very lonely; she would say that, too,” Sarah says. “She was exactly the type of girl I was trying to meet.”


A girl like her friend, Michelle.


At first, Kjersten was resistant. But she liked Sarah. She opened up to her.  Sarah and Kjersten began meeting every week. They started reading the Bible together. They had long conversations. Their friendship became real and deep. So did Kjersten’s relationship with God.


“She was very honest,” Sarah says. “Over the course of time, I could just tell she was falling in love with Jesus.”


Now, Sarah also invests her time with another college student, Kaitlyn. They meet every Thursday at Sarah and Brad’s walk-up apartment in Lakeview.


“We meet for about an hour, an hour and a half, and then we hang out for like four hours afterward,” Sarah says.


For Brad, it’s been a joy to see Sarah invest in these women’s lives through The Navigators.


“From the day we met, that was always her dream job,” he says. “It’s amazing to see the relationship she has with these girls now. It’s evident the impact she’s having. It’s really, really sweet to see that.”


They had some rare down time on a recent Sunday evening. Brad wears a backward Kansas City Royals baseball cap, and the couple digs into mac and cheese and carbonara pasta from DryHop Brewers a few blocks away.


Even then, they find themselves cleaning up Adelyn’s “Cheerio tornados” and tending to the little girl, who wears a pink bow in her dark brown hair—a few shades darker than her mother’s—when a cut lip makes her cry.



Despite the exhaustion of being new parents, the fruit of investing in the lives of others, comes in little reminders, like the handwritten note Sarah received this year from Kjerstin, the young woman who came into Sarah’s life a few years after the death of her friend, Michelle.


In purple pen, Kjerstin wrote this:



“…One of my resolutions is to outwardly express my gratitude to those who have positively influenced me. So hey…that’s you! Thank you for being such a strong and faithful woman of God. Your steadfast love for Him is beautiful, and something that I try to mold in my daily life. My respect and admiration for you is only overpowered by my love for you!

 Love and Blessings,




Written by Erin Chan Ding

Photo Credit Kristen L. Norman