I have spent much of my life loving the idea of doing good, for the sake of the kingdom of God, of course, but also as a part of a deeply ingrained plan for self-improvement. I’ve admired adventurous missionaries, self-sacrificing urban ministers, and devoted caregivers to those with isolating disabilities. But my devotion is short. My motivation is flawed. My attempts at serving others tend to serve my ego more than anything else.
D.L. Mayfield is the type of chronic do-gooder I admire greatly. She has spent the past decade with a Somali Bantu refugee community in Portland, Oregon, eventually moving her family into a low-income apartment complex. Her story is bracing and inspiring, especially as I am beginning to understand what it means to serve refugees in Dallas with a team of others from Restoration. And yet Mayfield intentionally lets the shine wear off as she details her inner struggles and deep frustration in the spiritual memoir Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith.
The scope of Mayfield’s memoir is limited to a series of essays about the many ways her life has been formed by her relationships with refugees. She frames her stories in the stages refugees experience as they adjust to a new homeland: anticipation and excitement, reality setting in, culture shock, and stabilization. Her life takes the same trajectory as those she calls the “stateless wanderers,” except that she readily acknowledges could go back to her comfortable home at any time but her refugee friends no longer have a home to which they can go or place where they fit comfortably.
Mayfield begins as an naive Bible college student, studying to be a missionary and eager to gain cross-cultural experience. A three hour a week commitment to mentor a Somali Bantu refugee family becomes an eleven year relationship that ultimately reshapes her far more than the family.
The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became. Or at least, this is how it seemed to me. I started off so confident, so sure of my words and actions. Over time, I became so immersed in their problems, falling headfirst into a crash course on how hard it is to make it on the margins of the Empire, and I ended up becoming overwhelmed, overworked, and slightly bitter. I went from feeling like an expert to a saint to finally nursing the belief that I was a complete and utter fraud and failure, and this was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s the only way I could ever start to learn to be a listener.
The Somali Bantu and other global refugees aren’t particularly concerned with her attempts to help them. Mayfield’s English lessons, attempts to discuss the Jesus Movie, and cultural advice have little effect. As the years go by she discovers that her greatest ministry is sitting on couches and bringing cake, especially funfetti cake. As she weighs the merits of her intentions and the effect of all of her effort, Mayfield can’t help but place all her hope in God who is forming her and mysteriously working in her relationships with refugees.
Ultimately, Mayfield has found greater peace and security in her calling. She cannot make herself more loved by God by doing even greater good.
I used to want to witness to people, to tell them the story of God in digestible pieces, to win them over to my side. But more and more I am hearing the still small voice calling me to be the witness. To live in proximity to pain and suffering and injustice instead of high-tailing it to a more calm and isolated life. To live with eyes wide open on the edges of our world, the margins of our society. To taste the diaspora, the longing, the suffering, the joy. To plant myself in the a place where I am forced to confront the fact that my reality is not the reality of my neighbors. And to realize that nothing is how it should be, the ultimate true reality of what God’s dream for the world is.
We are people called to join God in the restoration of all things. And often the first step we must take is to follow Jesus into the pain and disfunction of our world. Mayfield’s story assures us hat if he leads us in to that pain, he will sustain us with the hope that he is making all things new.