James Kang: A Heart for Asia


James Kang moves through Southeast Asia with alacrity and aplomb, wearing flip flops and weaving through the streets without fear, stepping in front of the ever-present motorbikes weaving past him—often hopping on one himself—and greeting longtime friends in just about every country.


James had grown a silver-flecked, ebony mustache for the first time just before a recent trip, and it delighted both friends and strangers. One man who worked for Air Asia, unknown to James, even stopped him at an airport to ask him to pose for a promotional photo.


“This never happened before I grew this mustache,” says James, his dark eyes dancing behind his glasses in a way that makes you think it actually did.


He looks much younger than his 60 years, and even more so in Southeast Asia, where his friend and fellow Chicago Navigator Mica Garrett, who accompanied him on a recent trip observes, “He seems more free here.”


Indeed, a large part of James’s heart resides in Southeast Asia. Born in Korea, James began working in the Philippines in 1987, leading short-term teams, and he hasn’t stopped traveling to various countries in the region since. James, who is on the leadership team for The Navigators in Chicago and former director of The Navigators Asian American Network, is also working to form a kind of sister  partnership between Navigators in Chicago and one of the Southeast Asian countries where The Navigators serve (unnamed here to protect the sensitive nature of the work).


James talked about his life on a recent Sunday afternoon on the 23rd floor of the Eastin Hotel Makkasan in Bangkok, the city splayed out before him with its honking tuk-tuks, or motorcycle carts, and a plate of hummus and soft naan bread spread out before him. It was a bit of a respite during a vision trip he had taken with Mica and others from Bridge to Freedom, the Chicago re-entry program Mica founded for the formerly incarcerated. Seated on an outdoor balcony, James dives into his 30-year history with The Navigators, his hopes for the Southeast Asian region, and his sense of Asian American identity and the linkages inherent in it.


What centers you in your ministry?


Two passages drive me in my ministry in Chicago. One is Philippians 2, where the apostle Paul says that you should consider others as more important than yourself. The other is 1 Corinthians 6 and also in 12, where God has given different gifts to different members of the body for the benefit of the body, and not for individual benefit, but how it benefits every one of us.


When Jesus talked about sin and idolatry and all those things, it’s defined and motivated by self, where Jesus’ ministry was all motivated by His relationship with the Father. I spent about a year just reading the Gospels over and over again, and Jesus always talks about “not by me,” but “by the Father.” Everything was dependent on the Father, and His sense of self was almost nonexistent. I love that. I think, hopefully, this is where I can get to, and the way I do ministry is like that.



So there’s a tension I experience when I’m in the States—you have to have a strong sense of self and identity so that you can really give and minister outside of yourself and really love and serve in humility. Also, when I come to Asia, I hear, it’s not about self, but it’s about others. It’s about really considering the family, the extended family and other people around you. In Asia, they would say, my identity is based on what other people think of me or how they interact with me. In America, my identity is based on my responsibility or my accomplishments.


So in Asia their sense of self is really weak. At one of the classes I teach in Southeast Asia on international interviewing skills, I say, “Tell me about yourself.” They say, “I’m in school because my mom and dad sacrificed.” It’s all about other people. I say, “But tell me about you.” They say, “Well, that’s too selfish. Why would I want to do that?” It’s a very different context here. What I’m trying to do is really balance the differences. It’s really both our individual self and yet at the same time, I am really nonexistent without others because I am a part of the family, and I’m an important part of the Kingdom. That’s what drives me.”


What was your childhood like?


I was born in Korea and came to the States when I was 9, and lived in North Carolina, in Charlotte. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) wanted my dad to practice English and writing more. So they sent us to a PCA-affiliated university in Charlotte, which is called Johnson C. Smith University. It’s an all-black university, so HBCU [Historically Black College and University]. So when we went there our housing was all black. The church and the school I went to was all white. So that was my first experience with the cultural dynamic differences. That’s why in ministry, 14 years later, I was drawn to ministry with African Americans. I was a volunteer chaplain at Cook County maximum security with Mica [Garrett], the Salvation Army halfway house, places like that. Because I really connected with the African Americans when I was growing up [in North Carolina].


Both my parents have master’s degrees, but I was really yearning for my own identity growing up, so I read a lot of books by Karl Marx. That was before I was a Christian. There was a book [by Robert Pirsig] on Zen and motorcycle maintenance, about yourself. I was really searching. So I quit school and because I was reading Karl Marx, and it was about working with your hands, I went to become a mechanic. I went to the University of Illinois at Chicago, and after one year, I quit. I worked two years as a car mechanic. The guy fired me because I wasn’t good at it. The only thing he let me do was oil changes. I then went to Loyola for school because my high school grades [at Gordon Tech, then an all-boys Catholic High School on the North Side of Chicago] were pretty good.


How did you become a Christian?


I came to Christ through my sister when I was 24. My sister, Ruth, and a few other people started the Asian American Christian Ministries at Northwestern University. She told me about a retreat, and I went to the retreat, and I came to Christ. I was at Loyola. This was 1982. That’s how I came to Christ, and got involved with Navigators at Northwestern for two years. I lived in an apartment on Foster Avenue by campus there.


How did you join The Navigators?


I got involved with The Navigators at Northwestern from ’82 to ’84, and then I went to Dallas Theological Seminary from ’84 to ’88. While I was in Dallas, I met my wife, Janet, in Oklahoma—my roommate was dating her roommate up in Oklahoma City.


While I was in Dallas, I joined Navigators staff and did my internship at Long Beach State. I wanted to do church planting out there in Southern California. It was the late ‘80s, and it was a lot of transition with a lot of new immigrants coming in. A lot of young people are having Asian American identities for the first time. It was a unique time.


I got connected with Navigators staff there, and they said, “Hey, why don’t you consider joining staff, and doing this here.” For Asians, it’s hard, you know, because we have to raise support. Initially, my parents were opposed to me raising support, but now they’re fully supportive.


What are your roles with The Navigators?


I wear three hats with The Navigators. There’s a smaller hat within the main hat. The first hat is I’m on the Chicago Navigators leadership team. The staff team is divided into three spheres, and I oversee sphere three, which includes Nations Within, Navigators Missions, and International Student Ministries. Other than that, [Chicago Director] Jay Neuharth gives me responsibilities like communications and the staff retreat.


The second hat I’m wearing is as a staff member of the Navigators Missions ministry. I’m on the national leadership team. I’m the director of the ethnic implementation team, and our role is to influence Navigators Missions staff-wide so we can recruit ethnic staff to go overseas. We have more than 300 staff with Missions. We don’t have a lot of ethnics on our Missions team, just a handful.


Under Navigators Missions, I also coach short-term team leaders who are going to Southeast Asia. This summer, I’ll be coaching three teams with seven team leaders. So I help with the logistics of connecting with local staff. Communicating with leaders here can be quite complicated. There’s so much cultural dissonance and misunderstanding. What people hear is not what they’re really communicating.


The third hat that I have is utilizing my connections, relationship spheres, to pioneer more summer and short-term, mid-term, and long-term missionaries to be in Southeast Asia.



What draws you to ministry in Southeast Asia?


Why not East Asia? Why not Korea, Japan, or China? Why Southeast Asia? I don’t know. I’m realizing, everyone, we’re all broken. We have broken pieces, all of us. We’re a mosaic of broken pieces, that’s who we are. In American evangelicalism, the thing that I hear all the time is, “God saved you from your brokenness, now move on, fulfill whatever God calls you to do.” So there’s a huge avoidance of our brokenness. If it becomes sharp, we blame others. There’s this whole sense of having my act together in America, moving along. God is powerful. God loves you. You know, go and do great things for Him.


The emphasis is not on how my brokenness can be healed and influenced by others but on my own. It’s about, “You’re great. God loves you.” I’m not panning Christianity [in America]. But here, in Southeast Asia, I’m realizing among Christians, as well, they accept their brokenness, they’re not ashamed of it. As shattered and as broken as they are, they really embrace it and allow God to use that to impact the lives of other people. So it’s less about them and more about others. And that’s what I love about being here.


When did you first get involved in Southeast Asia?


I started by traveling on a team in ’87 to the Philippines and came back in ’88. I brought students in ’92, ’94, and ’98 is when we started doing it every year. My wife was a huge, huge partner in this. Now that our son, Elliott, is grown, it’s easier, but back then, it wasn’t. Back then, I used to be gone four to six weeks because I was actually leading the summer teams, not coaching team leaders.


The generations are so different between then and now. When I first started doing this every year, students were born in ’78. Now they’re born in ’99, 2000. That’s a huge generational difference. One of the things I really want to do is, I want them to see how God works differently from where they’re from, how God works differently among other people and cultures and how other cultures and people are all equally loved by God. Because you could take the American culture or Christianity and try to impose that on them. But we need to see other people on equal footing as ourselves. Don’t see someone as lower than us—love people equally.


What keeps you coming back to the region?


I was talking to a Navigator here in Southeast Asia, and he said, “Well, all Navigator staff, we consider ourselves a family. But in America we have Navigator relationships, family, business, co-workers, then we have immediate family, and then we have close people we have fellowship with. Everything is compartmentalized.”


But here it isn’t. I love that. It’s not based on the benefit I get from you. Here there isn’t a clear line between working relationships and other relationships. Like, where does the line between co-workers and just caring for one another begin and end? One of the key staff in Southeast Asia and her husband, they called me in the middle of the night, “Are you okay? We heard you had a cough.” And they would drive on their scooter late at night to bring something for me if I am sick. It’s that kind of caring that’s different.


How does being Asian American shape your ministry?


Asian American identity is quite complex because in America, you have a spectrum of Asians who just came from overseas to those who have five, six family generations of Asian Americans.


Asians are very group oriented. From our family, we get pressure to be part of the collective, “What would other people think?” That’s how I was raised. For a lot of Americans, it was, “What do you care what other people think?” So it’s that cultural tension, and a lot of Asians we’re somewhere one foot in American culture, where we value America, we love America, we want to assimilate but there’s part of our value system that’s very group-oriented, which is reflected in why some people think Asians are not vocal or they’re passive, or they’re not strong leaders. Part of it is they’re very collective, so there’s that tension.


I would say the Bible talks about both identities, or realities, very well. Paul talks about everything as your responsibility, but at the same time, the “you” that he uses is very plural and talks about group responsibility.


I don’t bring the intimate answers or understandings of racial dynamics in America. But I think I’m able to see the big picture of how collaboration among culture and ethnicity is really important for us as a single body to glorify God.



How can we be praying for you?


If you could pray, what I know and what I think I know is not absolutely true as God sees it. It’s my reality. And I really want my reality, the way I see the world around me, you know, the way I see people and culture and stuff to be more in line with how God sees it. Because I can personify my own pet peeves and frustrations, anger, and agenda and all that and make it as though it’s greater.


And pray for my family. I love being in Asia, but I miss them.


What do you envision for your future?


I’m 60. I have six, seven years left until I retire. Even after that, I’ll still do ministry. If God allows me to continue influencing staff at home, in Southeast Asia—to see them catching a vision—I will be very thankful to the Lord for that. I’ll be very grateful.


James Kang: A Heart for Asia

Written by Erin Chan Ding

Photos by Kristen L Norman

for The Navigators in Chicago

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.