Ahh, interlibrary loan and your cover-obscuring stickers…
Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary by D.L Mayfield came to my attention via Episode #59: of the What Should I Read Next podcast, titled Prescribing books for what ails you. Ms. Mayfield was the featured guest, and based on some of the things she said, I thought I might enjoy her book.
I was correct. Assimilate or Go Home tells the story of her life among the Somali Bantu refugee population in Portland, a group of people that are, she states, some of the least successfully acclimated refugees the US ever attempted to resettle. Many of them had never lived with electricity or indoor plumbing; some of them had never climbed up stairs before coming to the US. The vast majority were illiterate in their own language, which makes learning written English difficult, if not impossible, especially when the trauma they’ve suffered is factored in. The Bantus were an ethnic and cultural minority even in their home country; even so, had it been possible, they would have chosen to stay there, rather than come to such an unfamiliar and difficult place..
Having long dreamed of becoming a missionary and bringing God’s kingdom (if she could only figure out exactly what that was…) to those who needed it most, Bible college graduate D. L. Mayfield began her volunteer work with the Somali Bantus positive that her mere presence would be all that it would take in order for them to accept Jesus and for their lives to improve. What actually happened was something very different.
Throughout this collection of essays, Ms. Mayfield details the challenges faced by the refugee families- language, poverty, culture, racism, bigotry, among many others- and describes how her presence often made the situation worse. Wanting to share her church’s Harvest Day festival with three headscarf-wearing Somali girls, whom she dressed up as Bollywood princesses, only proved how ‘other’ her own church community saw them; showing off her newborn baby, who was born quickly after what sounded like a fast diagnosis of pre-eclampsia, only drove home her privilege with the fact that had this happened to these women in Somalia, they and their babies would have died- most of them had already lost at least one child. ‘The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became,’ she admits. Clawing one’s way out of privilege and a smaller-than-you-realized worldview is no easy task; Ms. Mayfield does it, but realizes that it comes at the expense of those she’s supposed to be serving.
This is a memoir of hard-won humility, of unlearning just about everything you grew up being taught and thinking you know about the world around you. To be honest, I found Ms. Mayfield’s honesty and ability to examine her long-held beliefs and ideas extremely refreshing. While I’m not especially religious, I see far too many religious leaders with that white savior complex that Ms. Mayfield admits she originally had, with no contrary evidence altering their worldviews: this is the way things are, and if you do XYZ, then everything will be perfect and fall in line. It’s not quite that simple, Ms. Mayfield writes, and she’s correct.
This is one of those books where I would read a paragraph; pause; read it again; think about it; then write a line or two down in my reading binder (do you keep a log of notes as you’re reading? I find it helpful. I use a binder because Walmart was out of notebooks the day I went in. Out. Entirely. Again. One time they were out of extension cords. The Walmarts here are bizarre). D.L. Mayfield shares a lot of poignant insights that, while they stem from her Christian faith, apply universally, and she does it in a way that begs the reader to follow in her footsteps. Examine your ideals, your biases, your preconceptions about how the world should work and how people should act, and replace them with reality- not how you want it to be, but how it is. That’s where God, and growth, and peace, and understanding, will be.
Even if you’re not religious, this is a worthy read, both for the story and for the painful lessons that Ms. Mayfield learned (and that so many of us could stand to learn as well). This should also be required reading for anyone beginning work, volunteer or otherwise, with any marginalized community. It’s not a soft, gentle read by any means; it asks hard questions and demands changes, but it’s a challenge we should all be up for.
I was pleased to see that Ms. Mayfield is represented by Rachelle Gardner; I’ve followed her on Twitter for years and I’ve read and enjoyed other books she represents. Do you read the acknowledgements? I always enjoy scanning them and seeing if I recognize any names.
If you’re interested in this topic, books with similar themes include The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe (for more on the refugee experience), and The Childcatchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce (for another example of the damage the pervasive attitude of white saviorism can wreak).