Jessica Johnson

Where are you from?

I’m from Akron, Ohio. I grew up there, attended college there, and taught there for a year before moving to Chicago.



What brought you to Chicago?

I moved to Chicago about a year and a half ago. When people ask me what brought me here, I never really have one particular reason.  Since high school I’ve been so drawn to this city. I remember visiting in college and thinking that if I could ever live in a city, Chicago would be the one. At the end of a tough year of teaching in Ohio, I started applying for jobs in Chicago. It was a last minute, but I told myself if I found a job in Chicago, I could quit my teaching job in Cleveland and move. I was surprised when a job opportunity arose rather quickly. I came to Chicago three times over the course of a month and a half to interview, and in late May I accepted a job in Lincoln Park. I sold all of my furniture and many of my belongings, packed all that was left into a moving truck with a friend, and we started our way to our Lakeview apartment that someone had showed us via Facetime(we had never actually seen it!). I remember getting there and thinking…”this is…just a lot smaller than it looked in the video”, but we went with it and that little apartment became our home. It’s funny to think back on that time, because we had no idea where the neighborhoods were, or what each had to offer. We’ve since moved into a bigger apartment in what’s become one of my favorite areas of Lincoln Park, but I’ll always think back fondly to the newness of moving to a new city. There’s something so refreshing about every single experience being a first time, it was like having a clean slate.




What do you find challenging about living here?

Without going into too much detail, I work an odd schedule at a demanding job. I’m a sensitive person, and I while I can take criticism well, I also take it very personally. My year living here has been draining in this way. I taught inner city middle school science before moving here, and I try to remind myself that that job was incredibly difficult too, just in different ways.  It’s rough to work so so hard and many times not feel like it’s good enough. I do think it’s hardened me a little bit, although I try not to let it. Working a difficult job has also caused me to grow in ways that I couldn’t have acquired any other way. I think I’m more bold across the board now than I ever have been before. By trial and error(a lot of error), I’ve learned how to observe and become attentive to the needs of others, I’ve become a stronger problem solver, have learned how to respond kindly to a harsh tongue(even when I REALLY don’t want to!), and have grown to connect with people who are very different from myself in a sincere way. Sometimes when I’m having a really bad day I catch myself longing for my old job. Every job is hard though, and I’m trying to learn how to roll with the punches.

Also hard, driving successfully on lower Wacker and the trying to lessen the rate at which I receive parking tickets from the City of Chicago. ;)




Why do you love it?

Have you ever been somewhere that just felt right, like home? Chicago is that to me. It’s funny when I think about it, because I have no family here and started off with no strong social ties, yet I have never felt like a stranger here. I feel proud to live here. I think this city is so rich in character. The different neighborhoods have something unique to offer us-whether it be food, art, entertainment, you can always find something new to experience.




Why do you stay?

Even when my job is difficult and I feel frustrated, I don’t have a single regret in moving to Chicago. I love it here. There’s just something about this city, I feel lucky to be a part of it. It’s so odd to think that just a year ago I had no place here. It feels good to know my community and be known by it as well. As I was getting into an Uber from my apartment the other day, my neighbor yelled out, “Hey, Jessica! where’re ya going?”. Seems small, but I never really had that in the same way where I previously lived. It’s those small things that make this home. It’s my cute little dry cleaning lady who knocks on her storefront window and waves at me when I pass by. It’s walking the dog and bumping into people I know as I go through the park. It’s a little kid screaming “JESSICAAA” at me out their car window as I walk through a street fair. It’s being able to give someone directions in my neighborhood easily because you’ve finally got the street names down. It’s taken time, but I have a place here and I wouldn’t give that up for anything.




How has community affected your time here?

I got really lucky, moving here I already was acquainted with a handful of people from my hometown or college. Those people have most certainly become my community in Chicago. I love them and having pieces of home here with me. To be honest though, I’m still seeking out community here. It can be hard to branch out and invest in new friendships, especially ones that are sincere. I’m optimistic though, because I know the city has a lot to offer community wise. I think meeting people in a city is a lot of going out of your way to talk to people you wouldn’t other wise be meeting. I try to say “yes” to invitations here, even if I don’t really want to go to something because I know it’ll probably be a little uncomfortable.  What’s an hour or two of my time in the long run of things, when it could lead to new friendships?




Can you speak into the creativity found in the Chicago community? How does it inspire you?

The creativity of Chicago is my favorite. Art, food, music-we have it all!  I think I’m most inspired by creative people here who are hustling to make their life in Chicago happen. They love what they do and they work so hard to be successful.




When do you feel most empowered and comfortable in your own skin?

I feel most empowered in my own skin when I’m doing things in the city by myself.  I honestly can say that the past two years of my life have been a major time of growth for me as a young woman. In highschool and in college, I was someone who was kind of a wallflower. I was not confident in myself, never wanted to stir a pot or speak my thoughts with others for fear of what they might think of me. I first started to feel stretched when I moved into my first apartment alone and took on a challenging teaching position. I felt defeated and often used in my first few months in this position. I can specifically remember a day when I ushered all of my kids out to the bus at dismissal, walked back into my classroom, sat at my desk and just cried. The teacher that I shared the room with was such a blessing, I don’t even know if he realized as he gave me advice that I was doing great and I just needed to own what I was doing and be confident in it.

Fast forward a year to a rather spontaneous job opportunity in Chicago. I sold a lot of my belongings, packed the rest into a truck with my best friend, and we moved about 6 hours away from our families and friends to the city. In a short amount of time, my job required me to become acquainted and comfortable here. During my first few months here, I would not have said I feel most empowered and comfortable in my own skin when I’m doing things around the city by myself. It was hard at first, the people here are bold and can be difficult to work with and around. I would have to leave myself extra time when getting places because I so frequently got lost while driving or would miss my stop on the train. I think this time was a balance of being constantly humbled and simultaneously learning what my voice here was going to sound like. Do you ever stop and think about that, how your voice, your role is perceived in the place where you live? As Chicago started to feel more and more like home, my voice grew a little louder and I carried myself more confidently. The first time someone stopped me on the street to ask for directions I remember thinking, “I look like I belong here?! YES, I DID IT!”. The sense of belonging is empowering. I think when I started to feel like I belonged, my confidence rose and I really felt like I could be myself.




Has living in the city affected your style and the way you approach what you purchase / invest in. If so, how?

I would say that since moving here I’ve become more mindful when purchasing pieces for my wardrobe. Even though I have a car here, I walk so much every day to get places and spend a lot of time outside. When I lived in Ohio I never really had to think about what I was wearing too much, because I would drive from point A to point B, park, and walk 50 ft. into wherever I was going. Here, especially when the weather starts to turn cold, I have to think about it I’ll be warm enough in what I’m wearing and if my shoes will my shoes be comfortable for the distance I’ll be walking that day.

Style wise, I feel like living in Chicago has encouraged the love I already had for a minimal, monochromatic look. I think it works here to wear neutrals because I can easily transition from work, to restaurant, to museum, to drinks with friends. With my job, I don’t always know what’s going to come up on my agenda, there are always things popping up that I didn’t have on my schedule. I may randomly be asked to drop into a members only club to pick something up, or be asked to attend a meeting with formal dress code, or take a group of 5 ten year olds to play pickup basketball(I’m serious- these have all taken place in one day before!!). If I stick to neutral tones and clothes that are a nice cut, yet comfortable, it makes it easier for me to look the part of whatever role I’m being asked to fill that day.




How has Chicago affected your worldview, if at all?

I think Chicago has made me realize, even more so than before, how vast the disparity between rich and the poor can be in such a small area. There’s a lot of money in Chicago, I work with a lot of people who deal with it so I experience their lifestyle by association. I also see, and had seen in the news before ever living here, that Chicago is struggling. The most interesting thing to me about the disparity in economic groups here is how unaware many of the wealthy are of how close poverty is to them. Just this month, I started volunteering at my neighborhood food pantry. It was here I learned that 1 in 9 people in my comfortable and safe neighborhood struggle with hunger and not having enough food to get by. In MY neighborhood-I wouldn’t have thought that. I’m trying to be better in learning about injustices in Chicago and what I can do to play a teeny tiny part in change here. I love the Van Gogh quote, “great things are done by a series of small things brought together”. I try to remind myself of that one when I read the news and it seems like all hell may actually be breaking loose. Bring to the table the things you can give; your gifts, your time, your money. Even if we’re all bringing something small, together we can use those seemingly little things to achieve something big.




Is there any scripture that's been on your heart / resonated with you lately?

“On the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.”  

Job 23:9-10 (ESV)

I’m one who’s too quick to question if God knows the plan for my life and if he’s is present in difficult situations. I’m always comforted by this verse from Job. It’s a reminder that even when I can’t see God or feel him working, he wants good for me and is there refining me in that season of my life.


If you're in a season of distance from God, what are your questions / struggles? On the contrary, if you're experiencing closeness with God, how might you encourage our brothers and sisters who are wrestling with believing God is real and for us?

On my season of Christianity:

I would say that I've definitely struggled recently with Christianity and the role of the church in today's world. In the past few years, prior to moving here, I would say my faith was not a priority. I was already feeling uncertain if Christianity was what I wanted when, during my last two years of college, my dad got really sick with advanced lymphoma. I thought he was going to die and I’ve never felt more emotionally drained in my life. When he responded positively to an experimental treatment, ultimately beating cancer, I would have thought I would have a Hail Mary moment, returning with a glad heart to God. The truth is though that that year hurt me deeply, and at that time I felt that I couldn’t quite trust a God that would put people through something so dark.  I felt bruised and while I was so thankful my dad’s life was spared, I definitely did not feel in a place where I wanted to embrace Christianity just yet. I stopped going to church because being there didn’t feel right to me.  Even still though, in that time I held to my Christian morals and tried to love people. As I moved to Chicago I started attending church again. I found a church here that I appreciate because of their authenticity and recognition that the church today is flawed. I feel like they are actively seeking out what the city needs from us as Christians and they’re eager to fill that role, whatever it may be. Since moving here, I’ve become a regular attendee and have been reading the Bible again. The pastor at my childhood church always compared Christianity to the wheel of a bike. He said Jesus is that center piece, always using the Greek word epithumia, which means focused on or passionate desire. If God is at the center of your life, all of the other aspects of it will run back to Him and will circle around Him, just as the spokes of a bike tire run into the middle. I think even in the times I have been far from God, he’s been there. I can see him, the underlying cause in my decisions, my relationships, in bringing me to Chicago. I think too that’s why I’ve never given up on Christianity, it’s who I am, where I always find myself returning to. Keeps me rooted when all else seems to be a mess. I’m thankful for a God who doesn’t hold the times of distance and wandering against me, but waits patiently for my return. Oswald Chambers wrote, “ ‘I have chosen you’(John 15:16). Keep that note of greatness in your creed. It is not that you have got God, but that He has got you”.

On encouraging those who doubt if God is for us and advice on how Christians can show non-believers that he is:

In the first part of my answer, I mentioned that before my dad got sick, I was already having some doubts about Christianity. Some of these questions and doubts still ring in my heart even to this day. For example, I question and disagree with the way that so many Christians treat people who don't look like them. Refugees, the LGBT community, minorities- My heart breaks and I feel angry and ashamed at the judgment that the church all too often throws their way. There have been times when I've been watching the news and have honestly thought to myself, is this what I want to be associated with, THIS? It's hard enough to live in today's age, no one deserves to be judged by Christians who are people too, and are so very far from perfect.  

Are we a church, a people that seeks out the good in others and in our community, rather than condemning them? Do we support and stand with them when their voices aren't being heard? If you can’t relate to an injustice that someone feels affected by, do you take a moment to humble yourself, be vulnerable, and ask them about it? People questioned Jesus while he was alive because he didn't limit his time preaching only to the Jews, rather he was found spending time with those who did not look like him or share his views; tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, etc. We are the hands and feet of a living God, are we carrying out Jesus' example and meeting/loving unbelievers or people we don’t see eye to eye with where they're at? Just something I always find myself going back to, checking out my own life and if I'm living in a way that reflects this call to sincerely love others without agenda. The best way to show people Jesus will never be to pass judgment and point a finger. As it says in John 13, they will know we are Christians by our love.