We live in a divided America: Republican and Democrat; haves and have-nots; Caucasians and minority communities; Christians and Muslims (or really anyone else), educated elites and the illiterate. We are divided by politics, religion, race, economics, and culture. And you don’t have to look too far for evidence of how deep the divide. We’ve witnessed the public debate over who’s lives matter whenever someone gets killed and have heard the startling statistic that three-quarters of white Americans are without any minority friends.
What Makes D.L. Mayfield’s memoir Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith so good is the way she opens up about the challenges of living in the divide. Raised on a steady diet of missionary biographies and dreams of heroic self-sacrifice she began living and working with Somali-Bantu refugees with hopes of winning converts and gaining significance from her missional efforts. Instead she found her Somali friends eyed her with suspicion and treated her presence with benign neglect. Committed to friendship with her Somali friends, her attitude gradually shifts to one which is more reciprocal and mutual than that of mere missionary. Her mission field transforms as she learns to give and share the love of God with her Somali neighbors.
When Mayfield begins her mission, she is full of privileged assumptions and believed-expertise. She confronts her own privilege, her need for recognition, and she makes the shift from expert/sage to that of listener. Here are a couple notable quotes I underlined as I read (chapter titles in parentheses, the electronic copy I read didn’t allow me to specify location) :
I am not poor. I drink lattes during droughts, eat hamburgers during famines. I profit off the world I was born into, an economic system that crushes and oppresses. The problem was that I was born at the top, and so all of those troubles at the bottom used to seem so hazy to me. This is the real problem of being rich and happy and healthy and popular: it becomes easy, oh so easy, to forget about the rest. (Wade in the Water)
The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became. Or at least, this is how it seemed to me. I started off so confident, so sure of my words and actions. Over time, I became immersed in their problems, falling headfirst into a crash course on how hard it is to make it on the margins of the Empire, and I ended up becoming overwhelmed, overworked, and slightly bitter. 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. (Part 4, The Life-Changing Magic of Couch Sitting)
I liked Mayfield’s book a lot. In part because I could relate to it. I spent two years in ‘urban mission,’ prior to going to seminary, with organizations that required me to raise personal support. In the early days of my mission I found it easy to write ‘support letters’ telling friends back home about what good work I was doing in the inner-city. However these letters became harder to write farther into my tenure as missionary. It became harder for me to ‘pimp the poor’ and as I was confronted daily with the cycles of poverty, addiction and racial inequities, I wondered what good we were doing. Prayer became difficult for me as I watched neighbors and homeless friends gain one small victory only to hit with an insurmountable roadblock (or get sucked back into an addiction).
Mayfield names a similar sense of disillusionment as the missionary romance wears off for her, but she comes out the other end, hopeful, if chastened. Books like this are necessary because they image for us what it looks like to learn to lay down our privilege, rights, and delusions of grandeur in order to join in relationship with the other. In a divided nation like ours, this is sorely needed. I give this book five stars and recommend it to anyone, especially those of us on the privileged side of the divide.
Note: I received this book from BookLookBloggers in exchange for my honest review.