D.L. Mayfield’s words have always encouraged me toward greater depth of thought and examination of my own blind spots and her new book, releasing today, is no exception. I caught up with her to talk a little about it.
Cara Strickland: Danielle, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your book?
D.L. Mayfield: This is my first book, and it’s called Assimilate Or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith. It’s the story of how I grew up wanting to be a missionary and ended up living and working within a refugee community in Portland, Oregon, and the faith shift I underwent as they opened my eyes to some different worlds in America.
CS: In the beginning of the book you talk a lot about wanting to be a missionary and training toward that goal. Would you call yourself a missionary today, and how has that word changed for you?
DM: I would not use that word to describe myself, because that word has such a history of colonialism about it, and just a lot of just emotional baggage. You know, authors don’t always get to pick their subtitles and that was kind of a capitulation I had to make. But I think the word missionary does accurately describe who I wanted to be growing up. I grew up in a conservative Christian family, I was homeschooled, my dad was, and is to this day, a pastor. There were so many good things about my upbringing. I was really obsessed with reading missionary biographies, and now, in retrospect, sometimes I wonder if it isn’t because a lot of them were about women. You know, back in the day, if you were a strong women with leadership qualities the only place you could go was overseas. You weren’t allowed to lead in the American church. So, maybe it was just my feminist tendencies that led me to those books, but I also just had a strong sense that I wanted to be involved in whatever God was up to in the world and so being a missionary seemed like a great way to do that.
Nowadays, kind of what I write about in the book is when I met the Somali Bantu refugees in Portland, Oregon, not only was I learning about Somali Bantu culture, and refugee culture, and East African culture, but I was also learning about poverty culture in America. Now I kind of view my life as, I want to be a learner in these communities at the margins of America and I guess with my writing, I’d like to just be a witness to what I’m experiencing. But, yeah my life is much more about: I want to be reconciled with my neighbors. I’m trying to live a life in the direction of reconciliation.
CS: Your book comes at kind of a crucial national moment. How have your experiences with refugees shaped your response to political conversations about refugees?
DM: Honestly, it’s pretty hard for me to even listen to a lot of the political rhetoric being thrown around about refugees, just because it’s such a personal connection to me. I think one of the things that is a little bit hard for me is that the amount of time and bureaucracy and everything it takes for a refugee to actually come to America is kind of mind-boggling. First of all, they go through unimaginable trauma, and then they are forced to leave their home, and then they spend years, and even decades, just languishing in refugee camps and conditions that we couldn’t even imagine. And then a very, very small few get resettled in America. Usually they’re the ones that have experienced the most trauma, or they grew up in the most severe poverty, and so actually they’re pretty under-resourced for what it’s like to make it in America, but they’re only given eight months of assistance and then they’re supposed to be completely able to function in America without needing any extra help. So, they’re just put in such a terrible position in so many ways and it’s hard to even hear people say we shouldn’t even take any more in because of what could happen to us. And part of me is like ‘we need to accept more, but we also need to do a better job of taking care of those who are already here.’ So for me it’s a little bit of a two-pronged issue. But just living in apartment complexes where refugees get resettled has absolutely changed my life and the hospitality they have shown me and my family, it’s just an absolute blessing. I thought I was going to go hang out with them and convert them and make their lives better, but they’ve made my life better and richer and they’re just a blessing to me and that’s kind of my view on refugees.
CS: I have a feeling that your book will inspire many people to find practical ways to aid and be involved with refugees. Would you offer some suggestions for getting started?
DM: You know, a lot of times people or churches like to get involved in more like a short-term missions way, like coming in for a Christmas event, or a week long camp kind of thing. But the number one need of refugees in America is long-term relationships, so the biggest need I see is just one of isolation due to maybe even lack of English, lack of resources, different cultures. America has not been shy about our fears of Islam, specifically, and so people feel really isolated. The biggest need is for long-term relational engagement, so being in a long term-relationship with refugees is the number one need, and how I came to experience this is I signed up through a refugee resettlement agency. To be a volunteer there you have to sign a little form saying that you’ll commit to three hours a week, and that was awesome. It’s a great way to just get in. They assigned me to be a family mentor for a recently arrived refugee family and I just started showing up every week. You know, I thought that I was going to teach English and it very quickly became apparent that there were other needs that the family had and that just turned into like, I’ve known this one particular family that I was set up with for eleven years now, and two of the girls have gotten married and I’ve gone to their weddings and they have kids now. It’s kind of amazing just how tied up my life has been with them. I usually recommend to people, instead of focusing on even like making a welcome kit for a refugee family, which is needed, I think the bigger need would be to go through a refugee resettlement agency and ask if you can be assigned to work with a family and kind of try to be their cultural liaison at first and then just see where it goes from there. But most refugees are just hungry for relationship and the vast majority of them have never been inside an American home ever, and that’s just really sad.
CS: You write a lot in the beginning of the book about your past self who is very idealistic and really wanting to change the world for God. If you could speak back to her, what would you say?
DM: I mean, my entire book was kind of written to her. I have a lot of compassion for my former self and sometimes I miss the confidence, right? I just miss the idea that if you try really hard to follow God then everything will work out eventually. Or if you try really hard then the words that come out of your mouth will be just like the words of God. The world has rid me of those kinds of confidences and I am totally okay with that now but I still miss it sometimes. Kind of where I end up in the book is just saying there are so many injustices in the world and in America specifically, there is so much inequality, it is staggering, and they all need to be addressed and that is the work of God in the Kingdom, but even if you do that, that’s not going to make God love you any more. So ‘the world needs people to be working towards justice in it, but it doesn’t make God love you any more,’ I guess would be something I would want to tell my younger self.
CS: I’m sure that it’s hard to choose just one, so what are some of the greatest gifts that you’ve seen working with refugees?
DM: I think, well right now, I’ll just say, it’s Ramadan, and so all my Muslim neighbors are observing the Ramadan fast. I would, even when I was going to Bible college and I knew some people who were doing Ramadan, I would just think to myself like you know a part of that’s really cool, they are showing their devotion to God, they do it in community, the fast always ends in this big communal meal together and there’s some really beautiful elements to Ramadan. At the same time, there’s also these elements of religion that can be quite oppressive right? So we are doing this in order to gain favor with God, to make God like us more, to somehow control our life and to make it come out in our favor, and I would feel sad for them. But being in relationship with people from other religions really shone a spotlight on how I’m exactly the same way, on the things in my life that I do to try and control God and to make God love me more and to make myself appear holy and to build up my little tribe around me. So I think it’s been such a gift to sort of shift my focus, again, this kind of goes back to the missionary thing, it’s not like I want to convert my Muslim friends to become American Christians because we have the exact same problems, honestly, we all have some lies that we believe about God. But we can come together though, and I have a lot of confidence in God and the Holy Spirit and the life of Jesus, which is so radical, and so amazing, and so liberating, you know? We can come together and pursue this liberating God. So in a way it’s really helped me see both the good and the bad of growing up Christian, and I think I see way more commonalities than I ever would have with my Muslim friends. So that’s been a real gift.
CS: How did you come up with your title? Is there a story behind that?
DM: So I did not ever think that I was going to be a writer, writing was never a part of my plan because I was going to be a missionary right? And I used to read this specific website called Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a part of McSweeney’s, and they had a column contest that they would run every year, and one year I was like: you know what? My life is super interesting, I’m going to enter this and I’m going to win it. I do not know why I had such confidence, but I did and so I was just like: yeah, I’m a fundamentalist Christian girl who’s trying to convert these fundamentalist Muslim refugees in Portland, that is so interesting and I’ll just write a column about it. I decided to call it Assimilate Or Go Home, just because that was an expression I’d heard within certain groups in regards to refugees and I just kind of wanted to talk about how I had seen that for refugees that’s kind of like the fundamental sadness in their story. Many of them would love to go home, but they can’t. Their home has been destroyed by war and trauma and it’s unsafe for them. Immigrants usually come here willingly and refugees you know, they wish they could go back. So the title was catchy, but also there’s just an inherent sadness to it and I think that’s why I chose it.
The cover is kind of political looking, at least it’s like the colors of the American flag, and there’s a part of me that’s like: ‘yeah if Donald Trump picks up this book and is intrigued by it, and starts reading it, and experiences a change of heart, that would be awesome.’ It’s eye catching, I guess.
CS: So did the column go up at McSweeney’s?
DM: It did. I ended up winning the contest. So I would say a third of my book, the content is from those columns, but they’ve been very heavily edited because I’ve changed a lot in the past four to five years.
CS: As you’re getting ready to release this book into the world what is it that you’re hoping to give your readers, what is it that you’re hoping that they’ll take away?
DM: That’s an interesting question, and it sometimes feels a little bit like a secondary one in that my first goal was to just write to process my own life and try and be as honest as I could about it. I think my secondary goal in the back of my mind was just, you know I grew up reading missionary biographies as I’ve said, but I had never really read one from somebody who tried to do it for seven to ten years and failed miserably, and so I was like ‘hey, I’ve never read this book so I guess I’ll write it. Like here’s a story of somebody who tried it for a while and just it never happened.’ I wanted to write a lot about failure and what it means when our life doesn’t turn out the way we thought it would, specifically when we’re trying to do really good and big, important things for God, and then how do we move forward after those things have been stripped down from us?
So, I guess I would say for people who are similar to me, in which they wanted to do big things for God, I would want this to be an encouragement that God still loves us even when we fail and even when we are privileged and do all these things wrong. And then, I guess for people who have not had those same experiences and who maybe are struggling with how isolated they are from people experiencing poverty or refugees or people on the margins, I would like it to be an encouragement that the Bible says that is where God is and that’s where the blessings of the Kingdom are, are with the people who are sick and sad and suffering. You know, when Jesus announced his ministry, he said ‘I’m here to proclaim good news to the poor, to free those who have been chained and those who are oppressed and those who are sick’ so just kind of a gentle encouragement that those are the places we’re supposed to go to with the most confidence because we know that God is already there and he’s already working there.
In Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith, a collection of stunning and surprising essays, Mayfield invites readers to reconsider their concepts of justice, love, and reimagine being a citizen of this world and the upside-down kingdom of God.