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: Missional Enterprise Event Summary

Director of Navigators Missional Enterprise, Ken Christie, spent three days with us here in Chicago, June 1st-3rd.

Inspired by other Navigator city ministries and their examples of successful Missional Enterprise, we here in Chicago invited Ken to share with us in-person. Ken also visited with our Chicago Navigators in their unique contexts, listening and encouraging us towards fruitful disciple-making within a business context.

Ken visited Chicago Navigators, Dr Mica Battle and Michael Abbott, as they begin their own missional enterprise. In July/August, Dr Mica and Michael are opening a for-profit coffee shop and café in Woodlawn between the University of Chicago and the upcoming Obama Center and Presidential Library, currently under construction. Furthermore, Ken connected with other staff and Navigator friends, who are either actively doing business-as-missions or who hope to begin a missional business here in Chicago.

The highlight of our time with Ken were two evenings of sharing and discussing the essentials of Missional Enterprise, especially as it relates to our city culture. Ken shared Missional Enterprise principles and paradigms: The Triple Bottom Line and A Paradigm for Starting a Missional Business (see images below).

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.

A child peering through a telescope so big it obscures their face.

5 Intentional Questions That Start Spiritual Conversations

Are you curious?

Why curiosity is a part of God's character

Though He is all-knowing, this didn't stop Jesus from asking questions. In fact, he asked over three hundred!

Some of these were rhetorical and solely a part of rabbinical teaching (even today, Judaism emphasizes asking questions!), but Jesus used this convention to draw out the listener and enable them to reply honestly and from the heart.

"Who do you say that I am?" (Matt. 16:15)
"What do you want Me to do for you?" (Luke 18:41)
"Why are you so afraid?" (Matt. 8:26)
"Do you want to be healed?" (John 5:6)
"Do you love me?"(John 21:16)

Asking questions demonstrates care for people, and gives them a chance to share part of themselves with you.

Asking good questions enables you to connect with others in a deeper and more authentic way. It is a skill to learn to ask good questions, but it is so worth it to help others feel seen and known in love just as we are seen and known through the loving gaze of our God. 

The purposes of a person's heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.

—Proverbs 20:5

.   .   .

1. If you could change one thing about the world / society, what would it be and why?

This question hits a number of topics. You get to hear your friend's view of the world in how they answer the question. Are they pessimistic? Hopeful? What they answer says a lot about what's important to them. What do they want? What do they wish to be true of the world?

It also brings up the brokenness we see in the world. 

If they can't answer or find nothing to change, ask them why that is.

If they ask you the question back, which most people in polite conversation do, you have the opportunity to share what you believe about the brokenness you see and our need for a Savior. You don't have to get preachy—just be honest! 

2. Who is someone, or a few people, you admire (real or fictional) that you want to be like one day?

This is a question that let's people think about who they are becoming and the influential people or characters in their lives. Who is their ideal person? Who do they long to be like?

In the same way, answer honestly for yourself. Is Jesus one of those people? You can be real about that, as well as parents, siblings, characters from stories that you love. 

And then you both can be honest about how you are or aren't taking steps to be like that person. Maybe even make this a chance to have some accountability with each other.

Always look for follow-up questions or ways to revisit deeper topics like this!

3. What gives you life? What are some things that make you come alive? 

A question about joy! What brings this person joy?  With mental health issues being so rampant, a simple way to breathe in the life and healing nature of Christ is to simply invite someone into focusing on what makes them feel whole and alive and human. 

American majority culture glorifies work and invalidates rest and true experiences. This even gets into our Western church culture. When was the last time you heard a sermon on rest or spending time on things that weren't "productive" but simply allowed you to be who God made you to be?

Going on a walk, cooking a good meal, sitting and just listening to a record, doodling and drawing, a game night with friends.. these things aren't "productive" necessarily, but it is a valid need that we have! 

4. If time, resources, etc. weren't an issue, and you weren't afraid, what would you want to pursue in the next five years?

Allow yourselves to dream together! Who do they want to be? What would they want to pursue? This can tell you a lot about what they care about.Maybe it's also a time to encourage them to find ways to actually pursue that dream.

And for you too, what dreams has God put into your heart? Perhaps you have been told those things are "selfish," but what if God has given you gifts and experiences that will bless others if only you shared them. 

Do you or your friend have a talent for poems? Organizing events? Coaching? Doing hair and makeup? Taking photos? Then maybe it's time to ask God and others if you need to take the next step. Encourage each other to be all of who God has made you to be!

5. If you could talk to your teenage self, what advice would you give? 

It's good to reflect and look back, but few people give space for that these days. Sometimes because it's painful; sometimes because we're just too busy to slow down. But either way, experience changes you. So help people see and process those changes.

What have they learned over the years? What do they regret? What are they proud of?

If their change is for the better, encourage them and share how God has changed your life as well. Share in their joy!

If for the worse, speak hope and life to them. Gently frame their lives in light of the hope Christ offers. 

"Maybe you feel that way about your life, but this is what I believe God says to that."

This was originally meant to be a tool meant to help spark spiritual conversations with non-Christian friends, co-workers, etc., but they also can be asked of your fellow siblings in Christ! 

Take time and ask questions like Jesus. Because we all want to be known and loved.

Breath Prayer | Prayer Series

What is prayer?

For some, it may seem like this practice is reserved for pastors or your auntie or tia or tita  who never fails to bless every meal you share together.


Or maybe it looks like something you learned in Sunday School or at a campus ministry -- how to journal and read the Bible together. Perhaps the only time you feel like you pray (especially out loud) is at small group or church, and even then some of you may squirm and avoid eye contact with your leaders until they inevitably volunteer you to pray for the group.

"Prayer" according to, a website about etymology (the origin of words and their changes over time), came to us via French from the Latin root word meaning, "to ask, request, entreat." 

And here we encounter the limits of English! This is what most people deem "prayer" to be, and it shows. Much of the focus of prayer falls on the speaking, entreating, even begging to God. It's us speaking TO God. And this is very important! It is a profound beauty that God is a God who hears and lovingly receives our cries.

But how many of you know that prayer is also, listening, sitting, being with God? 


Over the next few months, we want to share some helpful articles inviting you into a more contemplative time of prayer with God. 

We hope this blesses you and encourages you on your journey with the Lord.



Breath Prayer

Imagine yourself on a typical day.

You probably wake up to some obnoxious noise, like a buzzing phone alarm or perhaps the tugging of your little ones. Maybe you pry your protesting kids from their nice warm beds in order to get them to school or daycare or grandma's in time for you to get to work. And maybe you have your earbuds in as you walk in to work in an attempt to prepare yourself for the day. And work comes with its own demands -- customers, bosses, coworkers, or frantic emails vie for your attention. 

We're only half-way through the day, and it's gotten undeniably noisy and full; maybe even overwhelming. 

Maybe you used to be able to spend time with God through journaling or prayer, but you often feel like you don't even have time to think.. much less sit down and engage with God these days.

Maybe all you feel like you can do is breathe

Breath Prayers have been a part of meditative spiritual practice for ages with roots in church tradition and is now seen analogously in counseling practices to combat anxiety. 

Often, breath prayers connect short phrases from Scripture or your own heart by breathing in the first part of the phrase and breathing out the second part. We're usually so busy that slowing down is difficult, but taking long breaths in, holding it, and releasing these breaths naturally help us wind down. 

The words "breath" and "spirit" are the same in the Hebrew text (ruwach, רוּחַ) as well as in the Greek New Testament (pneuma, πνεῦμα). Think of this prayer as embodying the presence of the Holy Spirit and allowing yourself to worshipfully breathe instead of, say, singing or dancing or other practices more typical in a Western service.

A simple breath prayer could look like this:

  • Close your eyes and invite God's presence into this moment 
  • Acknowledge any distractions that my be vying for your attention and give them to God for these few minutes ("Lord, I admit this is distracting me, but I give you my thoughts and needs right now. Spirit, enable me to connect with you in this moment.")
  • Breathe in for four seconds and pray in the first part of the verse or phrase ("Loving Father")
  • Hold for four seconds
  • Breath out for four seconds and pray the last part of the verse or phrase ("I need you today")
  • Repeat this prayer for five minutes, paying attention to your breath and body that God has blessed you with. The goal is not to rush or get to the end, but to be present with God in this moment.
  • As you pray, be aware of God's presence with you. Relish in that. Maybe even pause your words, and simply breath, listening to what God could be saying to you. He may use a feeling or a word or a picture. But if not, it's OK to just be still and present.
  • End by thanking God for this time and asking for His presence to go with you as you re-engage with your day

"Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10)
The Psalmists recognized the vitality of stillness in knowing God. By connecting prayer with your physical rhythms of breathing, you enable the Lord to connect with your body, where we often store stress. It's amazing to see how God created our bodies and how something this simple can help us connect with Him!

You may not have an hour to journal, but this is something that you could practice for five minutes during your lunch break, while commuting on a train, or when stuck in traffic. 

As you practice this, try extending your time to 10 or 15 minutes.  This could be a beautiful way of resting in the Lord instead of going to YouTube or Facebook or Netflix for that peace that we all need.

Be blessed!

Thank you always for your support and prayers for the Chicago Navigators.

"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.