In high school, newly following Christ, I made a lofty life commitment after hearing a guest speaker at youth group. He was blond and tan, betraying the SoCal surf culture he had jettisoned to follow Christ into the darkest jungles of exotic Papua New Guinea. We nicknamed him Bruiser, a play on his last name that hinted at his preaching style. Bruiser regaled us with tales of his decades spent successfully evangelizing a tribe. We were captivated by his every word.
True to his nickname, Bruiser ended with a missionary altar call, of sorts. He asked: How is it fair that comfortable US Christians hoard the gospel while people in Papua New Guinea die without hearing of Jesus?
I was 16, my heart was racing, and I was all in. Sure, I had never traveled outside my home state, and the thought of giant insects was almost a deal-breaker. But if Christ had willingly suffered torture and death, couldn’t I overcome my fear of cockroaches?
D. L. Mayfield, too, was once all in. Given an opportunity to serve among refugees while attending college in Portland, Oregon, she leapt at the chance. Now in her early 30s, Mayfield (also a regular writer for this magazine) has spent her adult years living among Somali Bantu communities—teaching English, baking cakes, and weaving herself into the tapestry of families beginning a new life.
But like so many other missionaries, Mayfield found her early excitement crashing against the rocks of reality. Her breakout book, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (HarperOne), traces a journey from zealous youth to collegiate do-gooder to disillusioned doubter to chastened disciple.
Assimilate or Go Home is arranged into four “movements” that mimic refugees’ acclimation process: “Anticipation,” “Reality,” “Depression,” and “Stabilization.”
In “Anticipation,” Mayfield writes of her first attempts at applying what she was learning while majoring in intercultural studies:
I was a lost and aimless college student, a girl with missionary dreams in a homogenous town, a student at a theologically conservative Bible college. But here I was sitting with people with foreign, traumatic backgrounds. . . . Cradling that little girl in my lap, soaked in piss and singing Christmas carols, I knew I could be of use to these newly arrived refugees, that I could do some tangible good in this world.
However, doing good turned out to be trickier than she imagined. There were well-meaning English-language worksheets that never seemed to hit their mark. There were failed attempts at learning a newly recorded tribal language. Disappointment ushered in “Reality.” Mayfield presents both the obvious difficulties and murkier areas of working with displaced people, especially those from preliterate or nonliterate cultures overwhelmed by Western expectations of reading proficiency. She admits being grateful not to have known in advance what it would cost to move her family into low-income housing and minister to messy, impossibly complex neighbors.
Mayfield makes a compelling case that long-term relationships are essential to helping others. When a well-intentioned church group hosts a Vacation Bible School, she is ambivalent. Although she welcomes any opportunity for children to hear the gospel, she can’t help sensing the danger of disappointment: just as the children grow attached to the volunteers, the camp is packed up and the volunteers depart, full of stories about a life-changing week helping the poor. What does this teach about Christ’s enduring love? Who really benefits in this exchange?
VBS involvement also plays a role in challenging her preconceived notions of others’ needs. While still in college, she is eagerly knocking on doors and inviting children to participate. Years later, the roles are reversed, with Mayfield opening her own door and greeting volunteers who have come to invite her own children. Seeing the show go on reveals the folly of her savior complex. “When I become the bit part, the background player in a much larger saga,” she writes, “I find my true role, which is this: to swallow my own impulse to save and to focus on the long game. To be a friend, the truest form of advocacy there is.”
The third movement, “Depression,” opens with Mayfield baking a wedding cake for a teenage refugee with whom she shares a close relationship. She wonders whether the young bride has given up on what higher education could offer—on Mayfield’s own dreams for her future. This forces some hard questions: “Where was her deliverer?” “What if I had made everything worse?” “Why was the kingdom, as Bob Dylan so eloquently put it, such a slow train coming?”
In Mayfield’s immersive storytelling, we see the strain of burnout breaking through. Her passionate pleas for others to help carry the burden fall on deaf ears. At her sister’s birthday party, she sours the jovial mood by giving an impromptu sermon on the horrors of famine in East Africa. The guests are intrigued, but awkward silence prevails; they relieve the tension by wandering away to fill their plates. On the couch, Mayfield’s husband gently suggests that this line of conversation may have been out of place.
Drop Everything and Run
Throughout her questioning and doubting, Mayfield holds suffering up to the light and shows how even here, Christ is found. She glimpses Jesus in a dying refugee man: though she could not identify with much of his life, she knew a Savior who did. In her friends’ pervasive poverty, she draws closer to a God who grieves over injustice and inequality. In the struggles and heartbreaks of messy family dynamics, she discovers the love of the Father who never stops pursuing his wayward children.
In the final section, “Stabilization,” Mayfield tries making peace with her failed ambitions. With cutting clarity, she diagnoses a poisonous self-focus that turned “my neighbors and refugee friends” into “stepping stones in attaining the love of God; I didn’t see how it meant that I was using everyone around me in real and devastating ways.” Letting go of self-centered aspirations, she learned to serve out of gratitude toward the Savior who loves us first.
More often than not, Mayfield’s eagle-eyed observations about ministry are spot-on. On occasion, though, her dogged self-evaluations hint at a fear of saying the wrong thing, or a fixation on purity of motives. “Why,” she laments, “is the reality so much more dark and small and full of uncertainty, every little thing I do a mistake of some kind, some gesture of privilege or a savior complex or gentrification?” One can appreciate her eagerness to err on the side of humility—especially when writing about ministry among the marginalized. But readers might suspect that she’s often too hard on herself.
I never found my way to the mission field, instead landing in the less exotic jungles of young marriage and motherhood. But Mayfield reminds us that often enough, our trivial, messy ministries matter as kingdom work. The ministry of parenting. The ministry of bringing dinner. The ministry of drinking coffee with a neighbor. Wherever we are, says Mayfield, God calls us “to drop everything and run, run in the direction of the world’s brokenness. And he is asking us to bring cake.”
Aleah Marsden is a mother of four living in California, a social media director for Redbud Writers Guild, and a storyteller for Living Bread Ministries. She blogs at AleahMarsden.com.
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