Navigator Church Ministries Pastor's Lunch March 2023

Tom McElroy, who works with Disciplemakers for Life, Navigator Church Ministries (NCM) in the Chicagoland area, filled us in on an NCM lunch event held this past March. Tom is the NCM Upper Midwest Regional leader and serves Chicagoland from his home in northwest Indiana. Please see his responses to our questions below as he tells us more about this event, as well as NMC!

Could you briefly describe the event?

On March 20th, six pastors from five Chicagoland churches gathered for lunch to meet Nav City and NCM leaders and to fellowship around the topic of disciplemaking.

They walked away from the lunch with a clear understanding of how NCM partners with churches to Grow Intentional Disciplemaking Cultures. They even began to evaluate their churches in terms of disciplemaking using a phenomenal Navigator Church Ministries assessment tool.

Why do you think an event like this is important for the city of Chicago?

I am so grateful for you who invited pastors to this event. Thank you!  Chicago needs hundreds of centers of multiplying disciplemaking.  Churches can be some of those centers! Events like these:

1). Create fellowship among pastors around the topic of disciplemaking and their common desire to see kingdom advancement in Chicago;

2). Expose concepts of Life-to-life discipleship to pastors;

3). Help pastors begin to evaluate the potency or weakness in their church’s disciplemaking culture and;

4). Set the table for an ongoing cohort of pastors seeking to grow disciplemaking cultures in their churches, and;

5). Lay the groundwork for an eventual Chicago area network of churches dedicated to multiplying disciplemakers in their churches and to spreading this passion and conviction to other churches!

How can people outside of Chicago join the Chicago Navigators in prayer?  What are some things that they could be praying for?

People can pray for more NCM laborers in this vast city, as well as for the formation of a cohort of pastors who gather regularly to learn about, discuss, and encourage each other in intentional, relational, generational disciplemaking.

Lastly, you can pray for follow-up meetings and partnerships which are resulting from the lunch. “. . . The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree. . .”  Matthew 13:31-32.

Everyday Chicago Disciplemakers Connect, Create, and Celebrate

Here is how we in Chicago walk with Christ and live the life of an everyday disciplemaker. Let’s connect with Chicago disciplemaker Cotorey Seals. Then, you’re invited to watch and listen to him create. And finally, we’ll celebrate by learning more about “The Garden.” Come along as we connect, create, and celebrate Chicago-style.


By leading from his own vulnerability, Cotorey deeply connects with others. He hasn’t done this alone. By partnering with men and women in Collegiate, Disciplemakers for Life–I:58 Mission, Navigators Chicago, and the local church, he has been transformed and continues to be transformed into the image of Christ while helping others do the same.

Cotorey is passionate about his relationship with God, self, and others. He says, “It has been a journey of trading in my self-preservation and self-protection for God’s protection. I had to renounce the pride that lied and told me that it would protect me. My walls were filled with pride and insecurities because of the hurt I had experienced.”

Cotorey continues, “But what I see the Lord doing in me, in you, is stripping back the ways we thought masculinity and protection were supposed to be—the lie of society that says, ‘I must be big and present myself,’ and oftentimes pride is just a mask for my hurt. And I feel like God is asking me to trade in the false protection of my pride and ego for a humble and contrite heart.”

In Chicago, a model for Navigators like Cotorey has been our embrace of bi-vocational disciplemakers. We encourage everyday disciplemakers to consider joining part-time staff, volunteering, and using their life and business training as a missional enterprise.


As a trained biblical counselor, Cotorey has created a healing ministry, a vocation, and a compelling life story as a disciplemaker. This is God’s gift to Cotorey through his pain, his brokenness, along with his healing and his joy.

Creating relationships, creating trust, creating space for others to be present, creating invitations and opportunities for others, and creating beauty and art—this is what Cotorey values as he stands before the listeners at Chicago Soul Café. Watch and listen now as Cotorey shares his “Spoken Word” at “The Garden,” one of his original open mic events (click HERE to watch on YouTube).


About celebration, Cotorey shares, “I wanna give what’s been given to me. I wanna celebrate yours and my life because of what God has already done. That’s what the open mics—and my sharing a Spoken Word—is about.”

Chicago Collegiate Director and friend James Crumb shares, “Before the pandemic, Cotorey created and hosted an open mic night for others to come and express themselves. That night was special, and he saw it as a ministry to people who want to create and use their talent for the glory of God. Cotorey is excited to see how God will use these open mics and is already planning ahead.”

For Cotorey and Navigators Chicago, our hope is that from “The Garden,” generations of disciplemakers will glorify the Lord and bear much spiritual fruit by Connecting, Creating, and Celebrating as everyday Chicago disciplemakers.



By Jim Conner, Chicago Navigators, D4L/20s Leader

Photos by Brianna Russell

Chicago Navigators Summer Gathering | 2022

On Saturday, August 20th, Chicago Navigators staff and friends gathered in the house of James and Sunita Puleo, who are taking on the role of the new Chicago Navigators city Co-directors. This Gathering was a chance to welcome the Puleo family, enjoy fellowship with one another, and hear updates from staff across the city!

The gathering started as people began to arrive and connect with each other over lunch. It was a blessing to have staff and friends from many different ministries in attendance, including Nations Within, Collegiate, International Student Ministry, Military, and Disciplemakers for Life. It was also fun to have a strong showing of students from the Collegiate and International Student ministry who were back in the city to start classes on the following Monday.

After a time of fellowship and food, the new Chicago Navigators Co-directors, James and Sunita Puleo, were officially welcomed along with their four children. There were also introductions and updates given by all in attendance, which was a great chance to meet others across different city contexts.

Gatherings like these are important for the Chicago Navigators because there are so many things happening in the city of Chicago! When being a part of any ministry, it can be easy to have one’s vision narrowed to the scope of that ministry. Gathering all-together, however, is a great opportunity to meet people from other ministries, hear stories, and connect as a unified gospel movement in the Chicagoland area. We believe that taking the time to connect as a city actually makes individual ministries stronger!

If you, or someone who you know is interested in meeting with Navigators staff and friends from various ministries across the city, consider looking into one of our regional discipling communities! These communities meet throughout the year to practice encouragement, accountability, and training as it pertains to mission and discipleship in Chicago.

The Chicago Navigators: August 2022 - David and Liz Hamlett

In February 2021, Chicago Nav Neighbors Staff, David and Liz Hamlett, joined Navigator staff. David is helping lead the Chicago Navigators Southside Network from his home in South Shore. However, because of COVID, few of us have met David and Liz and their active church, neighborhood, and street ministry. This brief question and answer section was created to help us all, “Meet New Chicago Navigators, David and Liz Hamlett”

David, why did you choose to join Navigator staff?

“I was introduced to the Chicago Navigators through James Kang, then a Chicago Nav administrator. He had already introduced me to Dr. Mica (Battle) Abbot and her Bridge to Freedom ministry, where I then led anger management Bible studies. Liz and I went through some interviews and found ourselves resonating with Navigator principles, and especially with the emphasis on relationships. Building relationships in the community with the goal of evangelism and discipleship was already my main effort in the neighborhood of our current church, Chicagoland Bible Fellowship. A discipleship emphasis is important because one can participate in church activities without being a daily disciple of Jesus Christ. Being a true disciple by following Christ daily is where the abundant, fruitful life is. God gave some answers to prayer to confirm the Navigator direction and helped me along the way with the assistance of James Kang, Jay Neuharth, and Jim Conner. The Navigators also encouraged Liz and I’s marriage relationship, which was a pleasant surprise to us as well as a foundational need. Liz did not join staff with me, but really appreciated Navigator attention to her needs and welfare. The Navigators as an organization and the Navigator people have been a strong encouragement and enabling force for the work of the gospel as I believe God has directed me.”

Why did you choose to remain in your city neighborhood and in your church while both were transitioning from mostly white culture to black culture?

“Starting in my kindergarten year, in the space of a dozen years or so, the all-white neighborhood changed to nearly all Black. My parents were part of a core of Bellevue (Baptist Church) people that decided to keep the church where it was and minister to the new neighbors. I was one of two whites left in my high school graduating class. My Mom told us, “We like our new neighbors.” There were several incidents, but generally speaking we were treated with respect for staying. I would find out later from a high school friend that “We looked out for Dave.” (Some years later), I ended up as a home missionary at Liz’s church, South Shore Baptist. Once we knew we were accepted in the position, we bought a home God brought to our attention several blocks from the church. Although the short-term assignment (at South Shore Baptist) ended after two years and eight months, we have continued to live in the same house and keep up some kind of ministry on the side as we raised our family.”

Why is disciple-making in your context so important?

It’s a key. We’re supposed to make disciples. One can be active in church and not be a disciple. You can be an active church member and not follow through with daily abiding in Christ. Sadly, it can be something of a norm, and it has been true in my life. Daily following Christ with all of my heart is where I engage with Christ and his overwhelming love for me. The norm should be loving God with all our hearts, and after studying the phrase “all your heart” in scripture, this became my philosophy of ministry and led me to being a daily disciple of Christ….”with all my heart.” Liz stated, “Making disciples is important because it strengthens the spiritual life of each of us. The disciple benefits by growing in Christ… and having a nourished faith, the church benefits by having strong believers, and the world benefits as more hear about the new life Jesus offers.”

Ambition to Contentment: Learning a More Excellent Way

Perhaps he could become a musician, he thought, as he poured himself out on the keys. Or, as he looked out the car window at his rapidly developing hometown, Maybe an architect? He would marry the girl, settle down, have a few kids, maybe write a book? Even in his wildest imaginings he never would have visualized the life he leads now. God had different plans.

Philemon Hayibor was born in Ghana, West Africa. His parents, both first-generation believers, were heavily involved in the ministry of Cru (formerly Campus Crusade). His father quickly rose in leadership and became the national director for Cru in Ghana. At home, they regularly hosted students and volunteers from down the street and all over the world. He went on wild bush adventures and watched VeggieTales.

His family had devotions every day and some of his earliest memories are of sitting in the back seat of the family car and praying for hours during their many road trips. He would sit with God and talk to Him as he would to a best friend. It’s that relationship that has been the only constant in his life.

When Philemon was 13, his family moved from Ghana to the suburbs of Chicago so his dad could get his PhD. These were sometimes beautiful, sometimes dark days for Philemon as he struggled his way through navigating a new culture, making new friends, the challenges of adolescence, and an ever-distancing relationship with his Heavenly Father. At age16 he rededicated his life to Christ, promising a life of ministry in His name. When 18 rolled around he was ready to find a liberal arts school somewhere far from home to learn how to make as much money as possible and pursue his own ambitions. But he could not afford any of those schools, and his parents urged him to apply to Moody Bible Institute.

Miraculously, he was accepted, and begrudgingly he went. At Moody Philemon discovered a love for theology and the Word of God. He was confronted with the grace of God and surrendered his heart and his ambitions to the Lord once more. He became involved in a small Bible-believing, truth-teaching church. And he met his wife, Janelle.

While he was working on his Master of Divinity degree, God brought along another unexpected turn in the road: he was offered a part-time position as a counselor at Pacific Garden Mission in downtown Chicago. God was actively working to dismantle his ambitions and redirecting him. Philemon had no desire to minister to the homeless, but life in the city with a wife and school bills doesn’t leave you with many options, so he took the job. He was hired full time just before the birth of his first son, and four years later he is now the manager of the men’s program.

Three and a half years ago, Philemon was given the opportunity to begin working part time for The Navigators Chicago city director, Jay Neuharth. Even here, God has been stretching Philemon’s plans beyond his expectations. He began in an administrative position but is now the associate director of operations for The Navigators in Chicago.

During his time with The Navigators, Philemon has been humbled and amazed by the leaders’ generosity and care towards him. He says, “The Navigators have taken the initiative to develop me as a leader, and provided me with many opportunities for learning and growth.” Through his work with The Navigators, he’s been able to travel, attend vision casting meetings, and rub shoulders with and learn from many leaders from diverse backgrounds from all around the country. He has added a wide range of skills and experience to his toolbelt along the way.

Not only has he had many avenues for development through his work, The Navigators has gone above and beyond to give him resources outside the normal scope of his job description. Most recently, Philemon has had the opportunity to be a part of the Leadership Development Initiative. Over about a year and a half, LDI participants attend seminars, work through assignments, reflect personally and in small groups, and work one-on-one with mentors. The goal is to grow in their ability to lead in a healthy, God-honoring way wherever God places them.

Philemon is still going through the program, and he has already gleaned many lessons that are helping him in all the areas of his life. He says, “Every leader needs to make space for rest and loving union with the Father. It helps the leader lead well. It’s in those times the Lord shows the leader his or her true self, where he or she can heal and learn to shepherd the people God has put in his or her care.”

As Philemon continues to serve with The Navigators, he remains thankful for their ministry in his own life. The boy who wanted to design incredible buildings and play beautiful music is now an associate pastor, a program manager, an associate director, a husband, and a father. The lessons and resources he’s been given through The Navigators and the Leadership Development Initiative have trickled down and blessed every part of his life from family, to church, to work.

Is life everything he dreamed it would become? No. It’s better!

“Many are the plans in the mind of a man,
but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”
—Proverbs 19:21 ESV

Story: Janelle L. Hayibor

Discipleship in Unprecedented Times

Saturday, March 13th, 2021 // 9:00am – 11:30am CST


Registration is live for our annual Minneapolis-St. Paul Navigators Discipleship (virtual) Conference and you’re invited! Join us online on Saturday, March 13th from 9-11:30 AM for a gathering of believers discussing what it means to be and make disciples of Jesus in these times. Listen and learn from our speaker Pastor Robert Daniels, and choose from over a dozen breakout sessions on topics ranging from mental health to discipling kids to loving your neighbors well during lockdown.

For more information on each breakout session click on the registration button above to see full bios and descriptions. Want to see videos from our breakout leaders and speakers? Check out our Facebook page (@MSPnavigators) and Instagram (msp_navigators)!

Be one of the first 50 registrants and you will be entered into a drawing for a $75 gift card for the Minnesota Twins MLB store!
Questions? Contact our conference director, Chad Selje ()


Our 2021 Life-to-Life Discipleship Conference speaker, Pastor Robert Daniels, is originally from Dallas, TX. After coming to faith in college, Robert served as a missionary with The Navigators in Bowie, Maryland. He then felt called to plant a church leading him to get training at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is now Lead Pastor of Christ Freedom Church in Lewisville, TX.

"Lord, Help Me Move"

Two women hugging in a cafe. Niwana is wearing a black jacket and glasses, and Nan is wearing a pink jacket. Nan's eyes are closed as she smiles and hugs Niwana.

Niwana Johnson hurls her fists. She shoves. And then she starts running.

She sprints away from the two women she had been fighting, heading for asphalt. She leaps into the street. She doesn’t see the car, but she feels it.

The impact sends her careening into the air. Bystanders say she flew 20 feet high.   

Niwana doesn’t quite black out. It’s more of a white out.

The floating sensation, the bright light, a crazy sense of calm, all those things people talk about feeling when they die. All these sensations bathe Niwana.

The next thing she hears is the beep of machines monitoring her pulse and oxygen levels. She feels the starchy sheets, smells the sterile cleanliness of Mount Sinai Hospital on Chicago’s West Side, a 319-bed facility next to Douglas Park.

And then she realizes she cannot move.

This is her cry-to-Jesus moment, one of many in a life that has seen a drug treatment facility 29 times. But this time, she thinks, she really means it.

Help me move, God, Niwana pleads inwardly, and I will follow you.

Meanwhile more than 900 miles away, Nan Miller prays, too: Lord, I will follow you. Help me move.

She can no longer hide the effect her husband’s verbal and emotional abuse has had on her and her two sons. Nor the effects his secret life has had on their shared ministry as Navigators.

She has a friend who offers her and her boys, who are 6 and 8 at the time, a place to stay. They’re in Central Illinois, away from the home she shared with her husband in Florida, in a place where Nan could find community and support and a church.

This place in downstate Illinois, a village of a little more than 16,000 people called Morton, felt familiar to Nan, a lot like the rural area where she grew up. She packs a few bags and leaves with their sons in a desire to find honesty, health, and wholeness for her family. Believing God can still use her life, she begins to lead a Bible study in Morton with 7th-grade girls. She stays with them all the way through high school.

Later, she would uproot herself completely, driving two-and-a-half hours northeast to Chicago, from cows and cornfields to streets and skyscrapers.

She would settle in the North Side neighborhood of Uptown and start another Bible study in a building by Lake Michigan. Three years after she began, Niwana would walk into the room.

Born a decade earlier than Niwana, Nan, now 62, grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Yorkville, a small city in rural Illinois.

Her family had deep roots in the area, tracing their ancestry there to pioneer days. She joined a 4-H club. She grew up going to church.

But around 16 years old, she discovered “road drinking,” which she engaged in without inhibition.

“You go out to a country road, and you stop and just drink in the car,” Nan says. “Someone would have a bottle of wine, and just pass it around.”

Niwana looks at Nan as she recounts her childhood, her espresso-colored eyes agape, and says with disbelief, “Nan! I just can’t picture that!”

They sit together at a table in a café in Uptown called Everybody’s Coffee. A series of woodcuts and lithographs by a Virginia-based artist named Steve A. Prince hang on the walls. He has named his exhibition “Sankofa: Rebirth.” Sankofa is a West African phrase roughly meaning “go back and get”— a journey that embodies the concept of reaching backward while moving forward.  

The black and white woodcuts depict celebrations of black life and the history and trauma wrought upon black communities. They embrace the merging of the past and the present, and they feel extra poignant as they surround Nan and Niwana, given where God has taken both of them, of how He has saved them despite their pasts, and of how they are still becoming who He has called them to be.

For Niwana, just the act of breathing—of being—makes her cry.

She takes off her glasses and inhales as the tears come.

“I’m alive,” Niwana sobs. “I just thank God for breath.”

She still bears somber scars from the culture in which she grew up, where fistfights and questionable influences pervaded Niwana’s life—including drugs.     

Cocaine. Heroin. Weed.

“I was a crack head,” she says. “I smoked weed. I did it all.”

She first remembers selling drugs at 13 or 14 years old.

“Being in that environment, that’s all I knew,” she says. “That’s how I made my money. And that’s how I became my own best customer. You gotta see what your merchandise is about. That was my mentality back then.”

Her long dreads swung as she talked, some of the tips woven into small ivory shells.

“I was sneakin’ and creepin’,” she says. “I did a lot of things for drugs.”



She keeps a small silver circle on the fourth finger of her left hand and a tiny cross on a chain around her neck. She bought the jewelry when she came into a mound of cash through her dealing, before she wasted the rest of it on drugs. She wears these accoutrements to remind her of where she was, so every day she can see how far God has brought her.

A few years before Niwana started dealing drugs, Nan enrolled in Illinois State University in Normal, a city in downstate Illinois.

After moving away from home, Nan says she lost the things—like family, church and routine—that had grounded her.

“I landed on a floor of girls that really liked to party,” she says. “I just started in with all that.”

She tried to do it all, hitting up the bars ‘til late and then trying to wake up for 8:00 a.m. classes.

“A hangover ain’t no joke!” Niwana interjects knowingly.

Then, Nan got mononucleosis, and the school sent her home to recuperate. There, as she fought to recover, she prayed, “God, I’m so sick of my life, and I don’t want to live this way.”

In return, she heard silence. Nothing. Like praying to a brick wall, she says. And yet.

After returning to school, Nan discovered a senior named Judy had moved onto her floor while she had been sick.

Judy befriended Nan, which made Nan think, “Whoa, I don’t know why she wants to be my friend.”

“That’s how I felt about you!” says Niwana, turning to Nan.  

Nan smiles, continuing her story. She invited Judy to a party, but Judy declined, saying she was a Christian. Later that night, Nan would make her way back to Judy, saying, “I’ve been trying to find someone to tell me how I can get to know God.”

Judy started drawing on a piece of paper, sharing the gospel with Nan through an illustration Nan still has more than four decades later. Later, Nan realized Judy had written down a wrong Bible reference, “but it didn’t matter because I was really searching for God.”

That’s how Nan met Jesus, and one week later, Judy invited Nan to a Navigator Collegiate conference that included a Scripture-memory workshop.

Wow, Nan thought to herself. People my age are actually taking the Bible seriously.

“Eventually, I figured, ‘Hey, what Judy did with me, I can do with somebody else.’ I could help them get to know Jesus and help them start to walk with the Lord.”


By the time Niwana walked into Nan’s Bible study seven years ago, both their lives had taken several swerves.

After graduating college, Nan began women’s ministries and collegiate work with The Navigators. She met a man who became a Christian in the U.S. Navy. He had come to her campus on the GI Bill. He also toted a list of qualities he wanted in a wife and told Nan she fit every one of them—except she couldn’t sew.

Nan had been praying about a potential husband, but she had also been feeling a call to go overseas with The Navigators. She spent that summer in Japan.

“I came back, thinking I was going to break up with him because I really loved being overseas,” says Nan, “but instead, I got convinced otherwise, and we were engaged in November.”

They married in May, despite some of Nan’s concerns about him, and had two sons, moving around the country to serve with The Navigators.

Over the years, Nan’s concern grew into alarm. Her husband’s episodes of anger escalated into unpredictable rage. Interventions were tried but didn’t help, and eventually, Nan moved her sons away from the toxicity of their marriage and into her friend’s house in central Illinois.

Meanwhile, Niwana had been doing her dealing among familiar city blocks, unable to kick what had become a lifelong addiction. She had been shot at, stabbed, jumped, and beaten. Scuffles, violence, and drugs swirled around her.

Through it all, she had a daughter and a son. Then one day, about 13 years ago, Niwana got the news her daughter had received a stellar report card, and she dropped by the corner store for some “zoo-zoos and wam wams,” a reference to snacks and treats. On her way out, Niwana says two women she knew from the neighborhood tried to rob her. A fistfight ensued. She ran.

And then the car hit Niwana.

When she’s in the West Side now and passes by Mount Sinai Hospital, Niwana still looks up at a window on the third floor where she spent so much time, regaining feeling in her legs and learning how to take steps.

For years, she kept her crutches under her bed.

“You heal my body,” Niwana had told God in the hospital. “And I’ll serve you.”



God did his part. Niwana couldn’t quite do hers.

Desperate for drugs, Niwana went back to her spot on a West Side street and stayed there for two days, getting high—with a collapsed lung.

But when she had no place to go, homeless for the third time in her life, God took hold of Niwana.

She made her way to Breakthrough Urban Ministries and went through its programs. Breakthrough staff set her up with housing in Uptown, in the building where she met Nan.

At first, Niwana would sit as Nan made her way through the Gospels with the small group of women, not saying one thing.

She took it in, wanting to learn but feeling a little suspicious, too.

Drugs had become her life, but she had also grown up around a church tradition, too.

Niwana remembers the times she had tried to get clean, when staying sober for three days seemed like the biggest accomplishment. During those times, she tried to attend church, sensing she needed God.

When she did, she felt people’s eyes on her. She felt judgment—judgment about what she wore, who she was, what she did. Like she could never be enough.

And so she left. She went back to the drugs, to the wandering, to the homelessness.

But at some point, she felt it from her core: She wanted to change her life. If she didn’t, she thought, it would be the greatest of insults.

“After I got hit, and God healed my body, I took it for granted,” she says. “I was homeless again. But God has brought me too far. He’s blessed me to not be another statistic. He delivered me, and He freed me, and that was like me pimp-slapping God in the face.”

Nan had moved to Chicago in 2004 and stayed after taking a 24-hour walk through the streets with fellow Navigator Larry Hope, deciding she had heaps to learn from Larry, from books, from the city, and from those she saw out in the night. And from Niwana.

At Nan’s Bible studies, Niwana began to say more, to share more. Nan knew Niwana was really serious when the study moved a few blocks and nearly all the women, some of whom were not yet clean from drugs, fell away.



Nan introduced Niwana to Edgewater Baptist Church, where Niwana found a community of believers who did not judge her, who embraced her for who she is. She participates as a member there now, and she serves the church annually as a high school camp counselor, taking great joy in sharing her story and all God has done.

Nan now serves as the city leader for Navigators I:58 ministry, which engages with communities in growth and rebuilding efforts. When she moved recently to Little Village on the West Side, away from Niwana’s North Side neighborhood, the church community helped Niwana realize she still had friends who would love and surround her.

Even though Nan has moved, every other Wednesday, she still shows up for Niwana. And Niwana shows up for Nan.

They have done this for the past seven years, and this month, they do it again, working their way through the New Testament.

Since they met, Niwana has had another surgery and experiences discomfort while walking, but she has stayed away from drugs. When the pain feels awful, she’ll go to Nan, who keeps a few aspirin pills for her.

Last year, Nan and Niwana took a van to Cincinnati together to attend I:58’s national conference, one of the few times Niwana has been out of her familiar neighborhoods.

When they visited the Underground Railroad Freedom Museum, Niwana photographed a Bible belonging to people who had been enslaved.



“If they took that big Bible around,” she says, “I can tote mine around.”

Niwana has a nickname for Nan, one Nan loves because it signifies Niwana sees her as family: Lil’ Miller.

“You know what? Niwana says. “Lil’ Miller—she is my home girl.”

Through the years, their relationship has become more mutual, with Nan coming to Niwana, too, and sharing through hard times, like her mother’s illness.

“It can take one person that God brings in your life, who puts your booty on fire, like ‘I got to move!’” Niwana says, looking at Nan. “I didn’t think that was true until you came.”

On a recent Wednesday, they read through Titus over Chinese Breakfast tea and pastries at Everybody’s Coffee, a café opened by Jesus People USA Covenant Church, a Christian communal living community.   

The artwork depicting Sankofa surrounds them, an echo to reach back in moving forward.

Niwana rubs her fingers over a second, newer cross she wears, a silver and gold one. It lays next to the one she bought with drug money.

She bought it “to remind me that I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold.”

It symbolizes this new era of her life, one that saw her daughter graduate from college and become an art teacher, one in which Niwana has stayed eight years clean, one in which she wants with all her being to serve God and others.  

“Anything concerning the Lord, I want a part of it,” Niwana says. “I don’t have a lot to give, but I have me. I have my testimony. So all right, Lord.”

Nan pats Niwana arm.

“I have a new phrase for you,” she tells Niwana. “You want to hear the new one?”

“‘I am not what I do,’” Nan says, “‘I am not what I have. I am not what others think or say of me. I am a beloved child of God.’ That’s a paraphrase, from a guy named Henri Nouwen.”

Niwana and Nan put their arms around each other.

“She’s stuck with me,” Niwana says, her eyes twinkling.

They hug and their heads fall together, purple glasses next to green, black dreads mingling with blond curls. One from the city, one from the farm. One called out of addiction, both called out of abuse. Two moms. Two friends. Two stories, forever merged because of Jesus.

Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with the Chicago Navigators.


Laborers Celebration Gathering : This is Chicago

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.


Called the Laborer’s Celebration Gatherings, the meet-ups bring together Navigators from every piece of the city’s ministries, from Navigators Collegiate to Workplace, Navigators 20s to Nations Within, I:58 and Bridge to Freedom, Discipleship House to Navigators Military.


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.”


This year, the team has turned its lens on the city itself, with each of the LCGs bolstering the theme, “This Is Chicago.”


“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


Jim and Darlene Conner: Chapter Two

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.



Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with The Navigators in Chicago.

Prison Ministry Leader Photo

"I Know What That's Like" - Southeast Asia Stories

How Chicago Navigators connect with prison ministry in Asia


Atop a concrete wall, jagged edges of bottles, brown and green, jab at the sky, translucent in the sun. They are meant to prevent escape.


Behind the wall, in a courtyard, hundreds of women roam. They wear two kinds of uniforms: blue and white if they have already been sentenced, and orange if they still await their prison terms.


A blanket of casualness cloaks the scene. Two women in blue uniforms, pass a baby back and forth. A prison guard takes the infant in his arms for two minutes and hands him back.  


Another woman strolls by, her hand nestled in that of a young man, who also wears a blue uniform. Their feet, clad in flip flops, kick up a sheen of dirt as they walk.


This feels nothing like an American prison.


Two other women in the courtyard would know.


One, a Chicago Navigator, Mica Garrett, sits in the courtyard eyeing the women, looking for one in particular named Nat, whom she had met on a previous visit to the prison.


Across from her, Colleen Brinkmeier widens her eyes as she peers at several women across from her, realizing that as a visitor, she has a direct view of those female prisoners bathing and brushing their teeth.


“I’m glad I’m not in here,” runs through her mind over and over.


It’s Mica’s third visit to the prison and Colleen’s first.


After serving a couple of prison sentences in Illinois—and becoming a Christian while in prison—Mica started a faith-based residential re-entry program called Bridge to Freedom. Colleen, who also served time in Illinois prisons, was its first female graduate.  


They’re here to see if the Navigators in Chicago can forge a continuing relationship with the women in the prison here, to see if they can unearth hope in a place of heartbreak.


This is a prison referred to by a number, the prosaic name of this facility deep in Southeast Asia. It holds mostly women, plus young men who enter as minors.


Sirivuth, the head of a Christian prison ministry here, tells us the prison was designed for 500 inmates. There are currently 1,827.


Mica and Colleen walk amid the concrete prison, and venture into a room where inmates sit at sewing machines, working on the blue and orange prison uniforms. Though the uniforms all look the same at first glance, the women have managed some individuality. One has sewed on buttons emblazoned with apples. Another wears multicolored buttons.


Mica sidles up to the women and asks questions, with a staffer from the prison ministry translating: “What’s your name? How old are you? Do you have a husband? Do you have children? Why are you here? How much longer do you have here?”


An older woman, Lim Ny, says she’s been at the prison for 12 years and expects to leave in about two-and-a-half years.


Learning how to sew, she says, has inspired her to open a tailoring shop when she leaves.


A younger woman seated behind her, Sreytouch, says she’s been in prison for nine years. Her husband is in another prison.


She doesn’t say the number of years she has left.


A prison guard, through the prison ministry staffer, tells us the reason: She’s been sentenced for the rest of her life.


Still, she says she enjoys sewing, enjoys having something to do with her hands, enjoys making things, even if they are prison uniforms.


“This makes me very happy,” she says.


The vocational and training programs, Sirivuth says, equips those in prison with skills across 10 disciplines—from computers to literacy to electricity to English—that men and women can use to gain employment when they leave prison.


Sirivuth smiling


The faith-based organization has gained the trust of the government, establishing MOUs, or Memorandums of Understanding, with various public departments to set up vocational programs in the country’s three federal prisons.


Their classes have served more than 950 prisoners in the past year, but aside from vocation and learning, the ministry also focuses on health and nutrition, visiting foreigners in prison, assisting the children of those in prison, reintegration and re-entry, and resiliency of spirit. The latter is, in essence, a regular Bible study.


“Our vision is to holistically address the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs,” Sirivuth says in his office, about 20 minutes away from the prison. “Here, our culture is that visiting prisons brings you bad luck. So families don’t want to visit the prisons. Even to walk past the prisons, it brings bad luck, so they have to invite a monk to drive out the bad luck and say blessings. So we are the bridge to break the cycle of such traditions.”


Mica smiles several times during Sirivuth’s comments, noting the similarities in bridge-building between his organization and hers. They came at it different ways—she out of a calling from God after her own prison sentences that re-entry services needed strengthening, and him out of a realization that despite working for Christian organizations for years, he had not been truly visiting and serving those in prison, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 25—but in distinct parts of the world, they both try to bring dignity and faith into the prison and re-entry system.


Sirivuth continues, saying a prison official came to him with a request that the organization implement a culinary skills program in another of the country's prisons, but he wasn’t sure he had the knowledge or resources.


Right away, Mica’s eyes land on his. The nonprofit she founded, Bridge to Freedom, happens to fund itself partly from a catering service run by its students.


“We might be able to do something,” she says. “Let’s keep talking.”


In another alcove inside of the prison Mica and Colleen visit, women sit and stand in front of mirrors. Hot hair straighteners lay on tables, plugged into multiple outlets on the floor.


Women sit, holding each other’s hands, painting them with hues of blue or beige, lilac and lavender.


Mica and Colleen walked into the area of the prison used for cosmetology training. In seconds, a woman in a blue prison uniform gravitates toward Mica, pointing out her braids and saying, “I love your hair!”


The women sit us down and grab our fingers with tenderness, asking what colors we would like on our nails.


I choose a deep purple, the color of my alma mater, Northwestern University. Mica and Colleen decline politely—Colleen, a lover of nail polish, had just indulged in a manicure that morning—but they did sit and watch and talk.


As a woman in blue garb named Tavika started on my index finger, the woman who had pointed out Mica’s braids, her face curious and inquiring, sidled next to her.


She smiles, looks at Mica and asks, “Can you cook soul food?”


Mica, who once opened up a soul food restaurant in Alabama called “Just Released” and dreams of starting a similar restaurant in this Southeast Asian country, glanced at her with curiosity, answering that she could.


The woman introduces herself as Manvin.


“My husband is black,” she says. “He’s from Nigeria. That’s why I love your hair so much.”


Manvin adds, her eyes raw now, “He’s also the father of my son.” She squats beside Mica and looks up at her as tears pool.


Mica looks straight into her watery eyes. She has visited this prison twice before, and the pattern seems all too familiar: Women do the bidding of their husbands or boyfriends, who talk them into carrying bags for them—bags filled with drugs—and get caught.


“Is your husband the reason why you’re in here?”


Manvin nods, her eyelids turning crimson as she cries.


She talks about her son, who was an infant when she entered prison and is now four years old.


“It’s so, so hard,” she cries. “It’s really hard here, you know.”


Mica runs her hand through Manvin’s hair. She pats her shoulder.


“I know what that’s like,” she says, a tear trickling down her cheek. “I’ve been in prison, too.”


And there, amid hairdryers and nail polish and hairbrushes, Mica and Manvin hold each other. Shared experience fills the space between them.


When Manvin looks up, Mica gazes at her, brown eyes peering into brown eyes.


“You’ll come home,” she says. “You’ve got hope.”


Manvin inhales and nods.


Holding Hands

by Abigail Jackson


“But listen to me,” says Mica, her tone growing sterner. “Don’t go looking for him. Don’t you go back to him,” she says, referring to Manvin’s husband, who pushed her into drug smuggling.


“You go looking for Jesus.”


They hug, and Mica asks Manvin to write to her.


A few minutes later, Mica sits in the prison courtyard, watching as inmates hold hands, brush their teeth and pass the baby around, wondering if she will get to see the woman named Nantiya, who goes by Nat.


Her eyes take in the men and women walking in blue and orange, glancing at faces and hoping for one familiar one.


Ten minutes later, a slender woman in a blue uniform appears before her: Nat. She wears her hair to her shoulders and though she is 32, she could be mistaken for a college student. She speaks English flawlessly.


Mica breaks into a smile, and they hug.


“How are you doing?” Mica asks.


“I’m okay, you know,” says Nat.


They had met twice before, and Nat has remained on Mica’s mind. Would there be a way to help her from the outside? To contact her mother? To procure legal assistance? Mica isn't sure, but she wants to try. For now, all Mica can do is give her presence.


Standing under a small overhang that provides shade and respite from the 95-degree heat, Nat begins her story. She says she was born in a neighboring country in Southeast Asia but adopted by American parents and raised partly in America.


She confirms that she got mixed up with some men several years ago, yet when asked about the details of her case and whether it involved running drugs, she seemed vague and almost bewildered herself by how or why she ended up in prison.


She had been in the prison for five years so far. Her term? Life.


What Nat does know for sure, she says, is this:

Late in 2014, she was given a book by the prison ministry called “The Grace Awakening” by Charles Swindoll.


Up until then, she didn’t believe in God. She had thought of the Bible as “B.S., a bunch of stories.”


Yet as she read the book, she kept thinking, “What if God really does love me?”


And then one evening as she neared the end of the book, in this prison surrounded by concrete and jagged glass, hundreds of miles from where she was born and thousands of miles from the country where she grew up, she knew.


In her heart, she heard God saying, “I love you. My grace is sufficient.”


And Nat invited Jesus into her life.


Since then, Nat says she feels peace. When guards threaten to turn off the running water, Nat calms the fellow prisoners she calls her sisters by telling them to stay serene, that things would be fine. Despite the thought of an interminable prison sentence, she feels loved.


“If it wasn’t for prison,” she says, “I would never know Jesus.”


On hearing Nat recount her story, Mica nods. She reflects herself on how single-mindedly she wanted to see Nat that day, almost to the exclusion of listening to other women’s stories in the prison.


But then, in the cosmetology room next to the boxes of nail polish, Manvin opened up to her about her toddler son and her hardship. And together, Manvin and Mica cried. That receptiveness to Manvin, she says, may have led to God allowing her to see Nat.


Mica thinks about her experience with Manvin, about the plight of Nat and her life sentence, but about her peacefulness, as well, and about the time she herself spent confined by walls topped with barbed wire, where God met her, too.


“A prison is like a garden for God,” she says. “He waters it, and it just grows.”


She gives Nat another hug. She looks into her eyes. She’ll be back soon she says, and then passes through the concrete wall to the other side, with dust from the courtyard spiraling behind her.


By Erin Chan Ding

Navigators in Chicago


Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with the Navigators in Chicago. She and Kristen Norman, a freelance photographer, traveled to Southeast Asia this year to see the work being done and the partnerships being formed with the Navigators in Chicago. Stories from their journey chronicling the relationship between Southeast Asia and the Navigators in Chicago will appear periodically this year.