Sonja sitting in a chair.

Sonja Sampson: Escaping the Darkness

Sonja Sampson stood at a bus stop in Englewood and closed her eyes.


When she did, she tried to envision her future. She saw nothing. Just darkness. Just a blanket of black.


She tried again. She wanted to see something, to envision anything.


“You know, when you close your eyes, you might see somebody running past?” she says now, 15 years later. “It was just plain, jet black. I hoped something would come, but it never came.”


That scared her. Her life up until then had been a swirl of drugs and parties. It got so bad she lost custody of her four kids. But losing them did not compel her to change. The darkness, however, did.


January 13, 2002. That was the day at the bus stop. The blackness shook Sonja to her depths. She called her father, who picked her up and drove her to a drug rehabilitation center.


She had tried before and been in and out of drug treatment centers. But this time, at Haymarket Center’s West Loop location, it stuck. She didn’t want to go back to the blackness.  


It had been well over a decade since the very first time Sonja got high.


“The bottom is the moment you take that first hit,” she says. “That’s the bottom right there.”


It started when she was a teenager with weed. She moved to crack and to cobbled-together drug cocktails, cut with nail polish or even embalming fluid.


“It was an escape,” she says.


Childhood, for Sonja, was harsh. Her mom called her and her sister cruel  names. She swore at them.  


“They were real strict,” Sonja says of her mom and grandma, who said she could rarely leave the house as a child. “As soon as we were able to, we were up and out.”


Sonja was 16 years old when she had her first child; a couple of years later, she had her second. Shortly after that, the father of her children was shot and killed.


“That’s when everything started to spiral down,” she says.  


Sonja spent her life all over Englewood, at 54th and Aberdeen Streets, 57th and Elizabeth Streets and then at 51st and Bishop Streets.


“51st and Bishop was the hardest turn in my life,” she says. “Everyone on the whole block was doing drugs and drinking.”



Sonja stood there on a recent Monday afternoon, dressed in black and gesturing while standing in a vacant lot of overgrown grass. She gazes across the grounds, an arm gesturing, her brown eyes peering through ebony glasses and letting memories wash over her in the spot where she used to live, when the drug addiction started and her kids were taken away.


Here, too, she had to deal with her first husband.


The first time he hit Sonja was their wedding day.


“I had on a certain outfit and had a couple of buttons loose,” she says, “and he said, ‘We’re married now, button it up!’”


He pushed her, hit her. Sometimes, she would fight back.


“It was straight up like men in a street fight,” she says. “It was terrifying.”


She found out her husband was manic depressive. The abuse continued. But she stayed, partly because she found out she was pregnant and partly because she craved the company.


“I was so scared of growing old alone,” she says.


Together, they continued with the drugs.


“He wanted to get high, so I got high with him, and it led to me not wanting to stop.”


Her husband, she says, had two other children outside of their marriage. A few years later, he served her with divorce papers, and Sonja was relieved.


Still, the drug addiction continued. During this period, she dabbled in petty crime, racking up a record and jail stints for retail theft. One day, her sister called the police when Sonja left her children at home to go get high. Her youngest child was not yet in kindergarten.


“I can’t believe I was so strung out that I left them alone,” she says. “I was confused. It was my fault.”


Her kids would be gone for seven years.


It wasn’t until after Sonja’s stay at the Haymarket Center—she spent six months in treatment and six months in recovery—that Sonja got her kids back from foster homes and extended family members.



Getting them back was an adjustment.


“It was something I wasn’t used to,” she says. “It was all four of them, plus a grandchild.”


Sonja started work as a cashier at a neighborhood McDonald’s. Four years later, she got another job behind the cash registers at a neighborhood Burger King.


“Working in fast food is horrible,” she says, citing the environment.


After seven years at Burger King, Sonja needed to take a few months off for knee surgery. After she healed, she showed up at Burger King, ready to resume work, only to find out her boss hadn’t held her job.


“I cried,” she said.


Her second husband, Stephen Giddens, who treated her well, picked her up.


Soon after, she happened to grab a flyer. It had information for Breaking Ground, a program of I-58, a mission of The Navigators focused on investing in and lifting up under-resourced communities. Sonja went through the APL Teaching Factory, a vocational program at Breaking Ground. (APL stands for “A Planting of the Lord” from Isaiah 61:3.) She was trained on computer skills and nabbed her APL certificate.


“I liked Breaking Ground most because of the spiritual aspect it had,” Sonja says, citing support from mentors like longtime staffer Connie Milton.


“I remember leaving [Breaking Ground] and being like, ‘There’s something still missing,’” she continues. “It made me realize God was missing out of my life. I had a good husband, nice friends, but without God, life was a wreck.”


At the same time, Sonja went searching for a neighborhood church. Her permanent worship home, she resolved, would be the first church in which someone took the time to greet her.


She went to about three churches where no one said anything to her. And then, when she was about to give up, it happened at Bread of Life Missionary Church on 63rd Street: a woman reached out with a smile and words of welcome.


Months later, she and her husband were baptized there.  


“That spirituality was something I never had,” Sonja says of the guidance she received at Breaking Ground and at her local church.


Sonja, now a grandmother of four, loved Breaking Ground so much she went back to volunteer about two years ago, performing janitorial services. Shortly after, Doug Welliver, the former chief operating officer at Breaking Ground, hired and trained her.


“Sonja was a valuable team member,” Welliver says. “She assumed ownership of the jobs she was given and proactively looks for opportunities to save money or otherwise strengthen the organization. She was also very teachable and humble.”


Sonja says she was awestruck at where her career went with Breaking Ground. She has a job now in which, unlike her years at the fast food restaurants, she gets the chance to sit at a desk. Not only that, she works with computers daily and has a role in transforming lives like hers.


“I still can’t believe it,” says Sonja, 50. “I didn’t have a high education. I never looked forward to a future. When it was, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ It was, ‘Hopefully alive!’”


Sonja worked at Breaking Ground for five years, ultimately becoming assistant to the chief operating officer. More recently, she became a home health aide, a job she credits Breaking Ground with helping her qualify for when a lawyer provided by the organization helped her through the process of expunging her criminal record. She was able to do this expungement under state law but credits Breaking Ground with giving her the courage to pursue it.


At about the same time Sonja volunteered and then began work at Breaking Ground, Sonja experienced heartbreaking loss. In the course of three months, her mother, father-in-law, and cousin died. And then in August 2015, as the result of an infection in his gum, her husband had a massive heart attack. He died, too.  



Breaking Ground staffers attended her mother’s and husband’s funerals and provided emotional support. She goes to therapy regularly at an office a couple of miles east of her brick house near 63rd Street.


“If it wasn’t for me getting into Breaking Ground, I probably would have been still miserable with my husband passed,” she says. “I probably would have went back to drugs.”


Her dream now, she says, is to watch her grandkids grow. On her kitchen wall in Englewood, she’s taped a collection of index cards, each one containing her granddaughter’s spelling words: big, see, number, people. She wants to mentor her grandkids, to steer them toward a journey different from her own. She has lived a life filled with pain, yes, but also one abounding with redemption.


“I don’t say that Breaking Ground saved my life,” she says. “I say they made me realize my life was worth saving.”    


Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with Chicago Navigators.

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



From Asia to Ames to Chicago: How God Uses a Global Identity to Impact 20-Somethings

Matt* wears a silver ring on his right hand etched with five ancient characters that means “citizen of heaven.”


Designed and given to him by his parents when he turned 21 years old and taken from Philippians 3:20, the ring in many ways symbolizes the intersections of his life. Born in East Asia, Matt spent 18 of his 22 years shaped by the Asian continent, both in surroundings and culture.


“I’ve always had role models of what it would look like to walk with Christ and make decisions based on their faith,” says Matt. “And I have always been around my parents’ friends, who also have had very deep walks with God for a very long time.”


What he remembers are a flow of guests staying the night, even when their family of four lived in a small apartment in one of Asia’s largest cities. It’s something that has influenced him to this day, and Matt often ushers friends new and old in and out of his Chicago apartment. When an overseas team of Navigators Collegiate students gathered in Chicago before an international flight, Matt hosted them, too.


Matt has taken a circuitous route to Chicago and to the city’s Nav20s ministry for Millennials and young professionals. Like other divergent points in his life, Chicago is exactly where he sensed God’s prompting.


On a recent Thursday, Matt, dressed in dark jeans and a long-sleeved button-down shirt, rode his black commuter bike from his job at a transportation company, to a nearby pizzeria. Despite his slim frame, which stands at just over six feet, Matt consumes two-thirds of a medium deep-dish pizza.


“I’m a big eater,” he says, mocha-colored eyes twinkling, in a bit of an understatement.



In East Asia, Matt went to a local school up until fifth grade, becoming fluent in the national language before switching to an international school, where he found a global mix of friends from countries like Sweden, Canada,  Australia, Korea and the U.K.


“I had a lot of Korean friends,” he says. “I played a lot of soccer with them, so I know some Korean phrases.”


In high school, after his older brother graduated and moved away, God began an awakening in Matt.


“I felt like God was telling me to just bring Christ into the relationships I already had,” he said.


Matt led a Bible study on Friday nights for a half dozen guys on his basketball team, going  through Proverbs and Mark.


“They would come mainly for the free food and to hang out at my place and play some games,” Matt says. “We had Bible discussion and it was a time when I really began to identify my faith with my friends. We were able to deepen our relationships a lot because they were able to understand a part of me.”


Matt knew he would move to the United States for college, but he didn’t expect at first to end up in Iowa. He had already been accepted to the University of Minnesota, resolving to study business there. He had put down his deposit. He had even become Facebook friends with his roommate.


And then, he felt God’s prompting. God, he felt, was directing him to go to the little town of Ames, Iowa, to attend Iowa State University.


Because his dad happens to be from Iowa, Matt received in-state tuition. But there was more than that waiting for him there. There was a business program which potential employers told him would allow him to apply his global experience to the workplace. But at Iowa State,there also thrived a melded community of The Navigators, which embraced Matt.


“That was the first time I really believed God could use my life to impact others and be part of his greater mission,” Matt says.


During his first year at Iowa State, Matt did a two-month program with Navigators Collegiate in which he and a group read books, memorized Scripture, shared their testimonies and delved into how God might want to use their lives to impact others.


Later on, Matt helped lead a team of Navigator Collegiate students to East Asia, where they spent a couple of months building relationships with young people overseas. Those Navigators Collegiate trips from Iowa State continue now, even after Matt’s graduation.


Matt’s arrival in Chicago followed a similar path of heeding God’s whisper. Matt had felt excited by the offer by a global rotational job program, in which he’d train in Germany, followed by international rotations.


“It kind of satisfied my own desires,” he says, “but I felt Chicago was where I needed to be.”


A few months before Matt graduated, in March 2016, he traveled to Chicago to meet Jay Neuharth, the director of Navs Chicago, and other Chicago-based staff.


“It just felt right,” Matt says.


With a lot of prayer and guidance, he said no to the rotational opportunity and yes to a job in Chicago.


On a sun-drenched Friday at his office, where Matt is part of a team that processes shipments for global clients, he turns on the company’s software platform, grinning as he zooms in on ships carrying thousands of electronics.


He has also seen his own faith growing new roots since moving to Chicago, attending Nav20s gatherings, and speaking at Navs Collegiate panels.


Navigators Chicago Director Jay Neuharth says Navigators Chicago “is led by people like Matt.”


His overseas background, Jay says, “gives him perspective that few people here have, yet he is comfortable in Chicago, and enjoys the fun here, and the diversity. He has a passion for Christ which is contagious, and he is always ready to help a friend in need.”


Matt has also dived into his community at Church of the Beloved in downtown Chicago, experiencing an unprecedented amount of personal growth.


“College was a really good time with learning how to share my faith with others and grow in all these ways and be discipled and disciple others,” Matt says. “But the Gospel of Christ dying for our sin so we can be reconciled with God, it was this theological thing for other people that I had to share with other people. But this year has been really good in understanding my own sin and my own need for the God of the universe to die for me — and not just for other people so I can tell them about it. That’s been very sweet.”


At the same time, Matt has been building community among his generation. Just that morning of the pizza lunch, a young woman in his small group e-mailed him and a few others to thank them for showing up to a barbecue and birthday party in her co-worker’s honor, who was from Singapore but had been training in Chicago.


The love and kindness the co-worker felt, she told them, wasn’t on the “average societal norms.” She asked for prayer for her co-worker, prompting Matt to realize he wanted to do the same thing for his own colleagues.


“I probably should pray more for my co-workers because I would be more burdened for them and see more opportunities,” he says.


Getting to know his co-workers has also helped him build community in Chicago. Every week in the summer, he plays with a group of co-workers on the volleyball team at North Avenue Beach.


“I didn’t realize Chicago actually had beaches” before moving, he says, laughing.


In seriousness, the city and this period of his life, coupled with his global identity, has positioned him to build relationships with other Millennials.


Chicago, he says, “gives me some form of cultural competency to relate to a lot of different types of people. I understand the struggle of not fully belonging to one place or not being fully understood or fully known because of my cultural background, so I’ve been able to relate to a lot of people.”


At their core, 20-somethings, he says, seek meaning and relationship.



“When you talk about Millennials being cynical toward theinstitution of the Church, maybe many Millennials haven’t had the chance to interact on a peer level with people who have genuine walks with Christ and not an organized, bureaucratic institution,” Matt says. “People are looking for something bigger to be a part of, and I think that’s where the gospel and Kingdom work can be very attractive for Millennials, where we’re called to something bigger, and we’re called to something greater.”


For those wanting to reach out, there’s a “citizen of heaven”— equipped with an unthinkable appetite and a smile just as giant — waiting to connect.



*Name withheld for security reasons.

Written by Erin Chan Ding, freelance journalist with the Chicago Navigators

Photo Credit Kristen L. Norman

A Home Away from Home

Aaron and Amy Lee* treat their home in Chicago’s northern suburbs a little like they did their home in Africa: with openness. The backyard, suited for their three boys (and another little guy due in August), shouts invitation.


And that’s just how the refugee families they meet see it, too.



Not long ago, a refugee family they had met from Afghanistan came over to visit, unannounced. The Lees weren’t home, but the family stayed, unleashing their kids in the backyard to play.


The next time they saw each other, the parents told the Lees, “Our kids enjoyed playing in your backyard!”


Sitting in their living room on a recent Friday, the Lees grin. That’s just how they want it.


“We want to focus on loving our neighbor, on opening our home to them,” Aaron says. “And on bringing them into our lives.”


This wasn’t exactly how Aaron imagined his life as a little boy, but it has how God has worked things out, and how a dream partly lived can continue.


Since he was young, Aaron had longed to become an overseas missionary. In fact, as little kids, Aaron and I happened to be in Rainbow Club together, which was how our parents kept us kids occupied while they, nearly all from Hong Kong, attended a Cantonese-speaking, bi-weekly fellowship at Chinese Christian Union Church in Chicago.


Even now, three decades later, I remember us all sitting in a circle as our Rainbow Club teacher asked us to take turns sharing what we wanted to do when we grew up. My answer changed every few months—I wanted to become a firefighter and then a paleontologist and then a neurosurgeon. Instead, I became a journalist.


Not Aaron. He was steadfast. I remember him telling us, “When I grow up, I want to become a missionary in another part of the world and tell people about Jesus.”


I remember being impressed by his conviction. But I didn’t think much of it until two decades later when he and Amy, who jokes she “married into all this,” started raising money to go overseas with The Navigators.


And so, for nearly five years, from September 2010 to January 2015, the pair, along with their growing family, lived out Aaron’s dream as oversees missionaries for The Navigators in Africa, learning the local language and ministering to people who didn’t know Jesus.


But then, Amy experienced a dramatic turn in her health. She had always had eczema, but in Africa, it became full blown.


“There weren’t very many Asians in the city,” Aaron says, “and her language tutor came over, and she looks at Amy, and says, ‘Where’s Amy? I’m Amy’s friend.’”


Amy looked so different, her friend suggested Amy might need a doctor’s note to get back into the United States.


“By that point,” Amy says, “I didn’t look like my passport picture.”



Amy was also pregnant with their third child at the time, which further complicated her health issues. The Lees had no choice. They had to come back to Chicago.


They had been back every couple of years for furloughs and for the births of their sons, but this felt different.


There was the obvious question of, “What are we going to do?”


But for Aaron, in particular, there was an adjustment to the vision he had for his life since he was a little boy in Rainbow Club.


“All I wanted to do was go overseas, so coming back, all that was gone,” he says. “And just hearing Jesus say, ‘Am I enough?’ And just being able to soak that in: Absolutely, Jesus is enough.”


After the Lees returned to the Chicago area, The Navigators suggested they take six months to rest and get healthy as they re-integrated.


Amy’s face stopped swelling. Her eczema cleared. She and Aaron had their third son, who’s now 2 years old. In their living room, he toddles around his parents, who sit on a couch near a table laden hand-woven baskets, wooden spoons and forks, and carved lions and giraffes, tactile reminders from their time living overseas. Keegan’s older brothers  play with a Nintendo Wii in the basement, their occasional squeals punctuating their parents’ conversation.


As they settled back in Chicago, the Lees found the passion God had instilled in them had not changed.


“Our hearts were still for the nations and reaching the unreached people groups of the world,” Aaron says. “Our picture is being a light to the darkest places in the world, in particular places where we aren’t free to speak the name of Jesus.”


God started connecting them with person after person, merging their local environment with their global experiences.


The Lees, who once worked for World Relief, a Christian organization that serves refugees, reconnected with a refugee woman they met a decade ago. (As of January, more than 30,000 refugees have settled around the Chicago area since 2002, according to the Chicago Tribune.) Then, several months back, Aaron struck up a conversation with a family of refugees on the Chicago Transportation Authority’s Yellow Line train.



“They looked a little out of place,” Aaron says. “We invited them over. . . .”


“Actually, he invited himself over,” Amy says of Aaron, laughing.


The relationship has bloomed. The Lees have gone over to the family’s home and vice versa, and they have also met another refugee family from Afghanistan.


Given that some families speak Farsi or other languages the Lees don’t know, they say they rely mostly on some English, along with Google Translate, which has resulted in some amusing conversations.


A dad from a refugee family, Aaron recalls, was using Google Translate to invite them over for dinner. “And the translation came over, ‘We come poison food!’ I didn’t know if we should go!”


As they’ve gotten to know refugee families, the Lees have learned that several are dealing with high levels of trauma. Aaron recalls seeing a photo of a man he has befriended, sobbing near a blown-up mosque. The explosion had killed the man’s brother.


Others struggle with finances. Men and women who were doctors, lawyers, and engineers in their home countries settle for anything providing a consistent income in America, finding themselves cleaning airplanes and scrubbing toilets. Eighty to 90 percent of their take-home pay in America goes to paying rent.


“How do we help them develop holistically with their jobs, with economic development, with financial literacy?” Aaron asks.


He says through his work as a Navigator, along with Goodcity, an organization focusing on entrepreneurship, he has been able to visit mosques to talk to imams and sheikhs about candidates for employment or about those who might need help starting a business.


“We’re trying to give them a little bit of hope,” Aaron says. “We’re trying to empower them. We value the ability they have, and that just gives us a door into their lives and into their families and whatever’s going on. When I’m sitting down talking about a business plan, we’re talking about life.”


Aaron, who supervises some local Navigators staff with Nations Within, which focuses on people groups in the United States who are distinct from the majority culture, says he and Amy hope to build a team of people here who have a heart to reach people and families here who can then help reach the nations.


Even with potential government restrictions on the number of refugees to the United States, people from some of the hardest-to-reach countries are continuing to arrive in America, notes Aaron.


“They’re coming, and they’re our neighbors,” he says. “The desire is to see one household reached that can impact and reach other households around the world.


“Coming back, we’re seeing we can still be investing our lives in people anywhere we go, that we’re not restricted by location. Our calling is the same: to disciple people, wherever they are.”



*Names have been changed due to the sensitive nature of the ministry.

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

Discipleship House: Re-entry, Recovery, and Relationship

The Discipleship House, a two-story brick building on Fillmore, had no room for Donovan Sanders when he moved in last year. So he slept on the floor.

Donovan knew he needed the shelter. He appreciated the community and the fellowship of Larry Hope, a Breaking Ground staffer who had moved in about a month before him.

There was no way he wanted to go back to the prisons where he had spent several years. That much he knew. So he stayed.

“I didn’t care” about sleeping on the floor, he says, “because the way I saw it, it was a perfect opportunity for me to get the things that I needed.”

For weeks, he stayed on the carpet in the second story of the house, eventually got a mattress, and when a room with a bed opened up, he moved in.

Meanwhile, Larry built into Donovan’s life, persistent in asking him what he needed, inviting him to weekly fellowship and just building a friendship.

“Anytime I can have a conversation, I do,” Larry says.

Last summer, Cotorey Seals, a Navigator, moved into the house with Larry, Donovan, and four other men, filling the house’s six bedrooms, two bathrooms, two kitchens, and a weight room, which has a poster of Tupac Shakur on one wall and a poster reading “John 3:16” on the other. The weight room is one of the biggest rooms in the house.

“Definitely, we fellowship over working out,” Cotorey says. “That’s the way we get into conversations and build camaraderie.”

In February, Larry took a six-month sabbatical, leaving the vision and leadership of the house to Cotorey, who felt called to urban ministry after spending his first few years as a Navigator on the campus of Kansas State University.

Cotorey says he feels kinship with the men in the house because of his own story.

“The things that I have been through have given me a credibility to enter rooms that other people may not be able to enter into,” he says.

Born in Florida with drugs in his system, Cotorey grew up in an environment in which his mother was in and out of incarceration and his father disowned him when Cotorey was nine years old. Three years later, Cotorey became entangled with the juvenile justice system because of an incident with a knife.

However, Cotorey had a foster family, and it happened that his foster dad was a pastor. God found Cotorey at age 14, and he has been a Christ follower ever since. Aside from a speeding ticket six years later, Cotorey never had any more issues with the law.

A student athlete who played four years of college football as an offensive lineman, he graduated from Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, with a degree in biblical studies with an emphasis on Christian leadership.

“Because of the things I have been through, I can be a realistic example that you can overcome, you can persevere, and God is in your situation,” Cotorey says.

The decision to move from Kansas to Chicago and live at the Discipleship House proved a difficult one for Cotorey, but a necessary one, too.

“It was a denial of self,” he says. “It was a dying of self. In college ministry, everyone pats you on the back and tells you how good you are…”

“God was like, ‘If no change occurs, are you still willing to come do this for the sake of who I am?’ And I had to say yes, because God is enough. And these men are worth it because they’re made in God’s image.”

Cotorey has committed to two to five years of living at the Discipleship House and pouring into men who might have come from circumstances similar to his own tough upbringing. He envisions adding more structure to how the house is run, such as requiring weekly gatherings on Sundays to study the Bible and fellowship together.  (Those gatherings are currently optional.)

“We want to see the Gospel reach the hearts of these men,” Cotorey says. “We want to be intentional with bringing the Word of God into their lives—whole life discipleship. This is called a Discipleship House, so we want to actually be a Discipleship House.”

The four men living in Discipleship House who are not Navigators receive a deeply discounted rent. Their circumstances range from re-entry after incarceration to drug addiction recovery to just needing roommates and a place to stay. Most of the men found the Discipleship House through such programs at Breaking Ground as the APL Teaching Factory and the Manufacturing Training Center.

Adam Smallwood encountered Breaking Ground as he recovered from a drug addiction. It all started with a knee surgery a decade and a half ago, when a doctor prescribed Percocet to ease the pain of healing. A fixation on Percocet led to a dependence on OxyContin.

Then one day, Adam obtained two bags of heroin.

“I had no idea how next-level it was compared to the medication,” he says. “I lived a secret, double terrible life. I put my family through pretty much hell, to try to maintain and fake it and still feed my addiction.”

Adam’s drug habit landed him in and out of jail for a few days at a time, like when he got caught buying dope, but he says he’s never had a long prison stint.

“I kind of got lucky that I never had major loss like I kind of felt I deserved at the time,” he says. “I definitely knew right from wrong. But addiction makes all that unimportant. You might feel bad, but you’re still going to do what you’re doing. That’s the nightmare of it.”

During his emergence from this nightmare, while Adam was in a recovery program at the Gateway Foundation, he found Breaking Ground.

Or rather, Breaking Ground found him. One of the instructors at Breaking Ground’s manufacturing program met Adam at Gateway and told him about the educational opportunity, to which Adam said, “I’d be crazy not to pursue that.”

Adam earned three credentials in the program, and when Breaking Ground found out he needed a place to stay, it offered him the building on Fillmore next door. He also works on maintenance and repairs for Breaking Ground.

“We all get along good,” he says of Larry, Cotorey, and his three other roommates. “They’re doing good things. It is like family.”

One of Adam’s roommates, Donovan, learned at age 9 his father had been murdered. His uncles told Donovan his father had been stabbed to death, his body found in an alley.

Three years earlier, Donovan’s mother had died of cancer.

“I grew up without parents,” he says, adding that even though his grandma helped raise him, he fell in with the Gangster Disciples when he was around 11 or 12, and they became his security, his family.

“I started doing drugs at the age of like 16, started smoking, started drinking, started popping pills.”

Donovan plowed through pills, cocaine, weed, and liquor, and when he didn’t have the money to buy those, he stole. He spent his teenage years in and out of facilities run by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, doing drugs and stealing things like gold chains when he was on the streets.

A couple of times, he got caught, and during a stretch in his 20s, he did two separate prison stints in connection with burglaries.

A year and half ago, Donovan got clean through a treatment program; after the program, he was sent to a halfway house; at the halfway house, he learned about Breaking Ground.

When Donovan arrived at Breaking Ground, the staff embraced him, and while staying at the Discipleship House, he continued in the ministry’s factory and manufacturing programs.

Now, Donovan has a full-time, tool-and-die job at Slidematic Products, which also is sending him to school for manufacturing technology.

“I got wiser, and I was sick and tired of the pain,” Donovan says of his ongoing transformation. “It was a choice I made that, to be honest, I feel like it was God. I just wanted to do better, I didn’t want to hurt anybody anymore. I didn’t want to hurt myself anymore.”


Written by Erin Chan Ding

Photo Credit Kristen L. Norman

Rap Sheet to Clean Street

Antwan Candler keeps a printout of his prison record in the bag he carries to work every day at Breaking Ground in North Lawndale.

In his prison photo, a 21-year-old young man stares out, his eyes dull and vacant, a little scruff on his chin.

 Antwan’s vitals are there—born January 1984, brown eyes, 5 feet, 9 inches tall—and below that, the details of a life he once lived: criminal drug conspiracy convictions, prison sentence terms, custody dates, parole dates.

The record is no longer in the Illinois Department of Corrections database, as Antwan has been discharged from parole for more than seven

But still, Antwan keeps the rap sheet in his bag. To him, it’s a tangible, physical reminder of what could have happened had he not experienced a jolt in prison, the intrinsic call to turn his life in a different direction.

It’s what could have happened had he not found a ministry called Breaking Ground. Or a place that would employ him called Cleanstreet. Or a friend who
was also once incarcerated named Connie Milton, whom Antwan refers to as “Mr. Connie,” who leads the devotions at Breaking Ground and talks about a God who gives Antwan hope.

“I love talking to Mr. Connie,” he says. “If I’m going through something, I’ve just got to talk to him. He’s one of the reasons I stayed.”

Antwan grew up in Garfield Park, at Chicago and Ridgeway. His dad rarely came by, and the thin family structure he had disintegrated when he was 10 years old. That’s when his mother died of AIDS.

“I started rebelling when my Mama died,” Antwan says.

He used to play drums in church. He stopped going. He found the only stability he could, from the Conservative Vice Lords gang.

He bagged and sold heroin. He took PCP and Ecstasy. He went in and out of prison about eight times. In between, he became a father.

And then, one day, while he was incarcerated, his son came to visit.

“That kind of shook me up,” he says. Around the same time, he saw one of his friends shot in the ankle. And that was it.

“I was done,” says Antwan, who’s now 32. “I was just tired of prison. It was just making me feel stupid.”

He did a work release program, started working for Waste Management and decided “this is the path I needed to be going on.”


Through relatives, Antwan found out about Breaking Ground and Cleanstreet, ministries of The Navigators that give former inmates second chances. “It was a perfect place if you want to change your life,” he said. Now, nine years later, after educational classes and stints as a Cleanstreet crew member, crew leader, and assistant general manager, Antwan supervises the whole operation. Assisting him is Anthony Haymer, 42, who grew up in Old Town and who says his mom was so strict that he stayed clean, never accumulating a criminal record.

Doug Welliver, the chief operations officer at Cleanstreet, says Antwan is “tough, in a good kind of way, where he makes people adhere to the standards, but he also has the ability to listen to people.”

On a recent Wednesday, Anthony hopped into a white Cleanstreet van and drove to Humboldt Park.

He pulled up to one of those stately architectural school buildings that once housed hundreds of kids. School closings had shuttered the building, but on the outside, two Cleanstreet employees still whacked weeds and mowed grass.

It was one of several contracts Cleanstreet has with the City of Chicago to beautify its neighborhoods.

“There should be more places like Cleanstreet,” says Antwan, stretching his legs under his desk at Cleanstreet’s offices in North Lawndale. “Everybody deserves a second chance. I wish I could open a nonprofit like this, bring in people who’ve got records, who want to change.”

People like him. He looks up, smiles, and one can’t help but think, someday, maybe he will.


Written by Erin Chan Ding