Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith
by D.L. Mayfield (HarperOne, 2016) 207 pps.
In Assimilate or Go Home, D.L. Mayfield recounts her college-age desires to go to the mission field and save all of the lost souls to Jesus Christ. She describes her Christian college classes which focus on missions and how she earnestly engages with the assigned readings, professors, and classmates. She volunteers to teach English as a second language to Somali Bantu refugees who recently arrived in Portland, Oregon. As she begins to spend time with them she experiences internal dissonance and external resistance from the people she was “ministering to.” Eventually, this dissonance leads her away from missions, per se, to a life of living with, alongside the people she was initially planning to convert.
The book is organized by essays which highlight Mayfield’s journey from a naïve, eager would-be overseas missionary to a wiser, experienced Christian who lives in a poor, multicultural neighborhood. Many of the essays were previously published but are gathered here for an effective memoir.
In the essay “Vacation Bible Schools” Mayfield describes taking some of the refugee children to a week-long program popular in many evangelical churches. The theme for the VBS was “The Serengeti” with suggestions to decorate the church rooms with African-themed images.
Mayfield took a van full of children and “they stared in silent amazement at all the large cutouts of giraffes and elephants decorating the stage.” As she directed her children to a drinking fountain she overheard a small child exclaim, “Oh! They brought us kids from the Serengeti!” She realized that the church children thought the refugee children were props:
I wanted to self-righteously shake my finger and rant about “othering” people, but I was supposed to be the exemplary volunteer. . . . I glared at everyone around me. I felt smug, secure in my own saintliness as I bustled around my group of exotics, the only diverse kids in the large, pale bunch. I drove all the kids home, but decided not to bring them the next night.
Yet, as Mayfield reflected later on this experience she realized that her refugee friends were sort of a prop for her own life. “When I finally started to believe the opposite, to see them as complex, flesh-and-blood people, everything got much harder … And my view of myself was irrevocably changed.”
Mayfield is a skilled writer, bringing the reader into her life while revealing her thoughts, questions, and struggles.
I first read this book last fall, shortly after it was published. I began re-reading in early January before the inauguration and before the executive order banning refugees from seven predominately-Muslim countries was issued. In response to the ban, Mayfield posted on her blog, “Ten ways to support refugees.” This list is very helpful with practical suggestions.