In Review

blogpost-assimilateorgohomeAssimilate 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.

Palm Sunday Subversion

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“One place where Pine Ridge reservation sports teams used to get harassed regularly was in the high school gymnasium in Lead, South Dakota. Lead is a town of about 3,200 northwest of the reservation, in the Black Hills. It is laid out among the mines that are its main industry, and low, wooded mountains hedge it round. The brick high school building is set into a hillside. The school’s only gym in those days was small, with tiers of gray-painted concrete on which the spectator benches descended from just below the steel-beamed roof to the very edge of the basketball court–an arrangement that greatly magnified the interior noise.

In the fall of 1988, the Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes went to Lead to play a basketball game.  SuAnne was a full member of the team by then. She was a freshman, fourteen years old. Getting ready in the locker room, the Pine Ridge girls could hear the din from the fans. They were yelling fake-Indian war cries, a “woo-woo-woo” sound. The usual plan for the pre-game warm-up was for the visiting team to run onto the court in a line, take a lap or two around the floor, shoot some baskets, and then go to their bench at court side. After that, the home team would come out and do the same, and then the game would begin. Usually the Thorpes lined up for their entry more or less according to height, which meant that senior Doni De Cory, one of the tallest, went first. As the team waited in the hallway leading from the locker room, the heckling got louder. The Lead fans were yelling epithets like “squaw” and “gut-eater.” Some were waving food stamps, a reference to the reservation’s receiving federal aid. Others yelled, “Where’s the cheese?”–the joke being that if Indians were lining up, it must be to get commodity cheese. The Lead high school band had joined in with fake-Indian drumming. Doni De Cory looked out the door and told her teammates, “I can’t handle this.” SuAnne quickly offered to go first in her place. She was so eager that Doni became suspicious. “Don’t embarrass us,” Doni told her. SuAnne said, “I won’t. I won’t embarrass you.” Doni gave her the ball, and SuAnne stood first in line.

She came running onto the court dribbling the basketball, with her teammates running behind. On the court, the noise was deafeningly loud. SuAnne went right down the middle; but instead of running a full lap, she suddenly stopped when she got to center court. Her teammates were taken by surprise, and some bumped into one another. Coach Zimiga at the rear of the line did not know why they had stopped. SuAnne turned to Doni De Cory and tossed her the ball.  Then she stepped into the jump-ball circle at center court, in front of the Lead fans. She unbuttoned her warm-up jacket, took it off, draped it over her shoulders, and began to do the Lakota shawl dance. SuAnne knew all the traditional dances–she had competed in many powwows as a little girl–and the dance she chose is a young woman’s dance, graceful and modest and show-offy all at the same time. “I couldn’t believe it–she was powwowin’, like ‘get down!’” Don De Cory recalled. “And then she started to sing.” SuAnne began to sing in Lakota, swaying back and forth in the jump-ball circle, doing the shawl dance, using her warm-up jacket for a shawl. The crowd went completely silent. “All that stuff the Lead fans were yelling–it was like she reversed it somehow,” a teammate said. In the sudden quiet, all you could hear was her Lakota song. SuAnne stood up, dropped her jacket, took the ball from Doni De Cory, and ran a lap around the court dribbling expertly and fast. The fans began to cheer and applaud. She sprinted to the basket, went up in the air, and laid the ball through the hoop, with the fans cheering loudly now. Of course, Pine Ridge went on to win the game.”  (From On the Rez by Ian Frazier, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000)

Both SuAnne’s story and the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey are stories about subversive actions. They both subverted the expectations of the people. SuAnne subverted the expectations of the basketball fans who wanted to continue Native American stereotypes. Jesus subverted the hopes and expectations of the Israelites who wanted a king.

The Israelites were under Roman occupation while the Jewish religious leaders were in collaboration with the Roman occupying force with rebellious Jewish skirmishes around the countryside. The people wanted to be free of the Roman empire via a king (or a warrior messiah) to emancipate them from the Romans. And this where Jesus enters the scene.

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Jesus often used the language of paradox and reversal to shatter the conventional wisdom and expectations. Jesus subverts the powerful symbol of a king riding amongst his adoring subjects to reverse the common understanding of power, status and rule. As he did with the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus takes action–a rather provocative action much like an Old Testament prophet would take–to demonstrate the character of God.

Additionally, Jesus uses his donkey ride as an additional lesson in the reign of God.  Jesus frequently spoke of the kingdom of God in the language of impossible or unexpected combinations. The kingdom, which is something great, is compared to something very tiny: it is like “a grain of mustard seed.” Not only is the see tiny but mustard is a weed– thus, the reign of God is like a weed. Also, the kingdom is for children, who were nobodies—therefore, the the kingdom is for nobodies. Additionally, Jesus models this upside kingdom by dining (or, fellowshiping) with outcasts—so, the kingdom is like a banquet of outcasts, of nobodies. In the realm of God, those who are broken will be blessed.

Perhaps Jesus’ parody of a celebrated king is a gentle poke at us as well as the religious authorities of his day: God is not interested in status, whether it’s religious, or political, or material. Rather, God desires that we follow—that we become like—the One who was born in a barn and is preparing to die a criminal’s death.

The spectators of Lead, South Dakota wanted “Injuns” and SuAnne gave them an “Injun”–but did it with a power and grace that subverted the entire scene. The Israelites wanted a king and Jesus gave them a king–but did it with a donkey and days before his death by subverting all expectations and understandings at what Jesus’ kingdom was about–where the marginalized, the wounded, discouraged, powerless, and sick belong.