There are books that focus on immigration as a topic and books that focus on immigrants themselves, but the uniqueness of this book is that it focuses, memoir-style, on a welcomer of immigrants.
As D.L. Mayfield began volunteering among refugees, “I was drawn deeper and deeper into their community, which continually shed light on my own culture.” Her book, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith is an account of Mayfield’s reckoning with cultural assumptions, preconceived ideas, and a deep-seated longing to be a hero that she didn’t previously know she had.
Mayfield is gut-wrenchingly honest. She writes particularly incisively on the insidious nature of the savior complex for Christians. She spent the early years of her involvement viewing her “refugee friends as some sort of prop” and herself as a do-gooder who would save everyone and fix everything.
It turns out the story she was involved in was nothing like what she had originally hoped. People’s stories were messier than they had initially seemed when she went beyond the short-term mission trip “take a picture and wave goodbye” mentality and instead dove into long-term friendship long enough to see the lows as well as the highs.
Try as she might, she wasn’t even able to teach some of her oral-learner refugee friends to read, much less get everyone saved and everything fixed.
Feeling like a failure, she spiraled into self-doubt as everything she thought she knew was turned on its head. In the process of dying to many of the things she once had lived for (missionary success, cut-and-dried answers, productivity, etc.), her faith revived in a stripped down, humble form.
Proximity to the poor and traumatized changed the way she saw the Bible: “It was so bloody, so messy, so full of trauma. The stories within were all sharp claws and edges, never as neat as I had been taught in Sunday school. Everyone was so horribly messed up, and yet God loved them, God used them, God was coming, he was bringing his kingdom, it was already here. And I started to believe, felt it growing inside of me, a real faith springing up through the rocks.”
Far from being a hero, Mayfield now views herself as “the bit part, the background player in a much larger saga.” She shares: “The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became. Or at least, this is how it seemed to me…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.”
Listening is now Mayfield’s focus, along with couch-sitting. Her description of “the spiritual gift of showing up and sitting on couches” has stayed with me for years and has influenced much of how I see my own ministry–it’s less about what I get done in terms of checklist items and more about the heart-connections I can make with people who are made in the image of God.
“Did Christ know how complicated my neighbors were?” Mayfield asks. “Yes, yes, yes, he does, but he is polite and firm in his response. A messy, present, incarnational love is the simplest and hardest call of all, the call that all of us were created to follow.”
Indeed, she reminds us that Jesus is the prime example of messy ministry: “Reading the gospels, I would see a Christ who was constantly interrupted by crisis, who had time for people on the bottom of the pecking order, who always could be found in the wrong or just out-of-the-way apartments. And I fell in love with him.”
When reading this book, I fell in love with Mayfield’s obvious love for Jesus and love for her refugee neighbors. Her evocative account of breaking free of a savior mentality made me grateful that she was willing to put into words the unhelpful thinking that many of us engage in (I’m raising my hand!), but are too ashamed to admit.
I recommend this book to burned out welcomers who have tried to take the burden of a “savior” identity, who have tried and failed to be the hero of someone else’s story, and who are not sure they know anything anymore in this broken, complicated world. You will find realistic and hard-won encouragement from a fellow traveler within these pages.
I also recommend this book to newbies with a caveat that it is not for the faint of heart–reading it may depress you and dampen your idealism, but it also may deepen and prepare you to weather the burnout that eventually threatens us all if we stick around in messy situations long enough to be affected by them. To read my own “newbie story” which touches on several of the same themes as Mayfield’s story, click here.
May you always keep perspective: you’re not the savior, but you know a Savior who is a friend of sinners, a man of sorrows, and well-acquainted with grief. He is your companion as you walk with your immigrant friends through highs and lows, through grief and joy. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).