The following excerpt comes from Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith by D.L. Mayfield. Click here for an interview with Danielle about her book.
Find your own Calcutta, Mother Teresa used to say, and in my fervor to become a missionary, I would read that and nod. Find, find, find my own Calcutta, probably somewhere in Africa, most definitely in the 10/40 window, unreached for sure, all the way, that’s how I roll. In the future, when I am smarter and holier and know more. In three years, when I graduate with my degree in theology, when I will be able to explain all the points properly. In five years, when my debt is gone and I have found a team and a support system and am under the leadership of men with good doctrine in their heads and their hearts. In seven years, when doubt will no longer plague me and the words coming from my mouth will be magic, full of love and coercion, when people will be knocking my door over to be invited in for some seasonal, local, healthy food made with love. I will find my own Calcutta, for sure. I just have to make sure I am ready.
I grew up thinking that I could study missionary heroes, saints, and role models, like Mother Teresa, enough to one day become them. I didn’t realize that their theologies were a part of their bodies, the very lines in their faces, and that no book or teacher other than the very Spirit of God could give people the grace to do what they did. I studied Calcuttas all over the world and even visited for weeks and months at a time. But I wouldn’t let them teach me. Instead, I looked to textbooks and seminaries and professors to tell me what to fo with all the slums of our world. And whether I realized it or not, I absorbed the mindset that this Western method of education was the best way to go about doing anything: economically socially, theologically.
You go into debt, you learn from the best, and then you go out and be and teach and do with all that you have learned. And this isn’t bad or wrong or untrue, not at all.
Except for that one teeny tiny problem that I started to discover burrowed deep beneath all the years of enlightenment thinking that my culture and my church had swallowed like so much honey: Jesus never said those things.
But we say knowledge is truth, knowledge is superior, knowledge is power. Even though we don’t mean to, our culture values education and right doctrine to the point that we have excluded the vast majority of the world. When did the lie come into the world that unless we were taught by brilliant, educated men we could never hope to understand what God’s vision for the world was? When did we start to exclude the majority of people the world over from ever experiencing God? When did a building, a pastor, and even literacy skills become paramount for people to become disciples of Christ?
Perhaps when we stopped hanging out in Calcutta.
Perhaps Mother Teresa had a layered meaning for us. To be sure, in her Calcutta there were people dying every day: beggars, orphans, and widows. The poorest of the poor, they came to Mother to be bathed, clothed, and fed, and to die with dignity. There are comparable (although, as Dostoyevsky said, not similar) pockets of human need and desperation in every corner of the world. And in these margins of the Empire, far away from the institutions of learning and debating, people are experiencing God. They are encountering him, in big brick buildings and in apartment buildings, being washed by the Sisters of Charity or sharing stories with friends and family; the poor and the powerless have access to faith in ways the privileged can only dream about. They have the capacity to believe, regardless of the number of commentaries read or arguments made or sermons absorbed. They are the tiny grains of mustard that Jesus was so fond of, the widows, the orphans, the sick, and the crippled. Wherever Jesus went he was stopped by the people who never had a chance to study God from a distance; he was clutched at by the people whose desperation wasn’t thinly veiled by power and position. He was interrupted and pursued and followed by those who were considered unclean and outcast, while the pure and the right made sure to keep their distance.
I was like a plaster cast of a saint, painted perfectly white and blue on the outside, for all the world to see. But on the inside, it was as gray and hollow as a tomb. It wasn’t until I read the Bible with people who never had that I finally understood what “inspired Word of God” really meant. It wasn’t until my three-year-old scraped her chin and asked me to pray for it to be healed, eyes screwed shut in anticipation of all pain being taken away, that I started to believe that “all things are possible with God.” It wasn’t until I was living in a modest-looking living room full of somewhat damaged people singing awkwardly and off-key about the love of God that the phrase “the body of Christ” started to mean anything to me. Just like Nicodemus in the Bible, the church leader who came to talk to Jesus in the dead of the night for fear of anyone seeing him, asked: “How can any of this possibly be?” How can God speak to thieves, murderers, rapists, and illiterates? How can God use broken, sick people to expand his vision for the world? How can the poor be the heralds of a new kingdom, one where education and power and creeds hold very little sway?
The truth is, most of the world will not have access to what I did: a Bible college, smart and humble professors, great thick books with creamy pages of self-assured theology. But they have access to the one thing that I craved all along, what I paid good money for and spent years chasing after: the faith and assurance that God is present, he is involved, and he loves them.
From ASSIMILATE OR GO HOME: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith by D. L. Mayfield. Copyright ©2016 by D. L. Mayfield, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.