Assimilate or Go Home

Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith

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D. L. Mayfield
  • New York, NY: 
    HarperOne
    , August
     2016.
     224 pages.
     $14.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780062388803.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In D.L. Mayfield’s first book, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith, the author offers a deeply personal look at her evolving view of missions and ministry that exudes humility and reflexivity. Mayfield is candid and honest from the outset, letting the reader know that the stories she shares “are as true as my self-centered recollections allow” (ix). Mayfield was raised in an evangelical Christian home, and, after finishing college at a Christian university in the northwest, began living in an apartment complex alongside Somali refugees. Ten years later, this book reflects on her personal spiritual journey, and how she has come to view her faith.

Mayfield’s book is separated into four chapters, with each chapter containing around seven short essays. The chapters are not chronological, but represent eras of spiritual growth. Chapter 1 features essays that reflect on the naïve assumptions Mayfield had of working with refugees. In chapter 2, Mayfield starts to see the complexities of life for a refugee and the stories become more somber, but still hopeful. Chapter 3 is titled “Depression and Culture Shock,” and Mayfield quickly draws the reader into the heartrending nature of work in urban settings interspersed with her own feelings of failure. The final chapter shows the freedom that can be found when our models of ministry are shifted from giver and receiver toward a view of ministry as accompaniment.

At many points, Mayfield seems to offer her mistakes as examples for others to avoid. One instance of this is in the essay entitled “The Do-Gooder,” where Mayfield discusses the inability many American Christians have with developing lasting relationships with the poor. “We, as do-gooders, stay for a short while, because we crave the knowledge that we have done some good in the world…And I’ve learned how dipping our toes in the pool of humanity—going and helping and doing—actually impoverishes and deceives us” (88). She identifies with the problem, herself as part of it—and then shows how it is problematic—commodifying a person to indulge our sense of accomplishment. She ends the chapter with hope and the reflection that “to be a friend” is “the truest form of advocacy there is” (92). Throughout this book, Mayfield is doing just that, advocating on behalf of her friends.

Mayfield has said of her book, "[it] details my critiques of the American Dream and my relationships with Somali Bantu refugees which ended up shaping my life. The book is partly a description of my own journey through moralism and legalism through the lens of being a radical Christian and partly a narrative theology on the blessings of the ‘upside-down kingdom’—where the poor and the sick and the oppressed are first in line to see Christ" (Mayfield, Image website). Her description of the book as a picture of her journey through moralism and legalism is succinct and accurate. The book reads much more like a memoir than I had expected. In many respects the book imitates a book she mentions in her writing, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, but situated within her own unique cross-cultural context. Sadly, the achronological nature of it draws the reader into Mayfield’s story of self-actualization, and away from the stories of refugees, which shift into the background.

Based on the carefully crafted way Mayfield describes her relationships with her refugee friends, one can assume she labored to tell their stories in ways that were not belittling or simplistic. Though I think this is appropriate given her continued work within these communities, in doing so, she failed to give depth and life to the refugees the reader encounters in the pages of Assimilate or Go Home. They have names, and the reader can engage with some of their humanity, but in working to speak rightly on their behalf, the final product speaks much more to Mayfield than to the plight of refugees in the US. I wish Mayfield had felt more freedom and taken more time to develop the stories of each of the lives of the men and women she encountered. This may have made for a more robust book in terms of refugee cultural dynamics and engagement with refugees.

I would recommend this book as an approachable, honest, introspective book for students interested in living out ministry in an urban context. It is well written and the content will resonate with American Christian millennials. I was hopeful that there would be greater depth of dialogue about refugee issues, especially given Mayfield’s Christian identity and proximity to the issue. In many ways, refugee issues appeared more as an afterthought, or a way to move Mayfield’s personal narrative forward. For that reason, the book would not necessarily replace an ethnographic reading for an intercultural studies class. But for an introductory class on spiritual formation or within an ecclesial setting, this book would be a helpful resource that urges conversations about personal faith in light of current justice issues.

About the Reviewer(s): 

M. Andrew Gale is is a Ph.D. student at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
November 3, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

D. L. Mayfield has nearly a decade of experience working with refugee communities in the United States. Mayfield’s work has been published inMcSweeneys, Christianity Today, Relevant, Geez, Curator, Reject Apathy, andConspire!. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband and two small children. Visit her at dlmayfield.com.

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