Editor’s Note: Volume 4 is finished, and we couldn’t be more excited to share it with you. Today we’re giving you a sneak peek into one of our favorite features of the magazine: an interview with writer D.L. Mayfield.
For much of her life Mayfield wanted to be a missionary. But when a community of Somali Bantu refugees landed in her neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, her idealism was turned on its head. Today Mayfield continues to live in an immigrant community and writes about refugees, racism, and religiosity. Her book Assimilate or Go Home traces her journey from failing as a missionary to becoming a neighbor. “One of the reasons why I wanted to write the book,” she said, “was to talk about this arc I took from wanting to be a missionary and wanting to change or save the world, to getting to the place where I realized that I wasn’t able to do that. It’s not in my power to save the world.”
We couldn’t fit our entire conversation in Volume 4, so we decided to share what you won’t find in print here. Enjoy!
You often refer to the kingdom of God as the “upside-down kingdom.” Why?
There’s a great book called The Upside-Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill, and Henri Nouwen has talked about this too. It’s just such a lovely and succinct way of saying that Jesus’ ways are opposite to the ways of the world. If you are raised Christian like I was, you think you’re being raised opposite of “the world” and then there comes a point when you realize, “Oh, actually American identity or American nationalism or patriotism or capitalism or all these other things might have actually impacted my culture or my theology more than I realized.” And there comes another point of having to understand what it means to be separate from the world or be opposite of the ways of the world.
Where do you look for the upside-down kingdom in your own life?
A lot of these refugee and immigrant communities just love kids and so they shower my kids with love all the time. In some ways I feel like they are the ones who are also discipling me in the ways of Christ and in the ways of His kingdom. It’s just such a gift to be a part of it.
I hear Christians talking about discipleship and I’m not sure what they’re talking about—like you should just read the Bible more and get all the right answers? But my neighbors, they’re actually forcing me to make life changes and forcing me to really answer the question, Do I love my neighbor as myself? Public school is such a perfect example of a discipleship issue in my mind. Our schools continue to get more and more segregated and to be more and more unequal, and that’s because of the choices that people make for their kids alone, without considering the common good and without considering their neighbors. My daughter goes to one of the lowest rated public schools in all of Oregon. The test scores are super low, it’s kind of chaotic, but we are loving it. It’s our community, it’s a place of joy, and I don’t know, I feel like the kingdom of God is coming through that school. We love it.
In Assimilate or Go Home you talk about “unrecognized ministries,” such as the ministry of sending postcards and the ministry of sitting in silence with someone in the psych ward. How might these quiet, overlooked acts of love transform us?
The reason it was so important to me to talk about these unrecognized ministries was to show the exact opposite of the savior mentality, the savior complex that says, “I know everything and I’m going to come in and help people”—when really God is at work in the world and he’s asking us to pay attention, and to see where his kingdom is, and to come and join in instead of thinking we’re the ones bringing it. It was a huge faith shift for me.
I identify a lot more with the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, [especially] when they older son asks, “Why are you doing this for him when I’ve been toiling away forever in the fields?” And the father says, “All that I have has always been available to you.” That just really stood out to me. It’s always been available, all these blessings of the kingdom are always available to us, we are just the ones choosing not to partake in them.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is how Christianity has this really amazing theology of anti-utilitarianism. So maybe that’s what I was trying to say in these ministries of really small things. You don’t have to do something because it works or it shows results or progress, even though I don’t necessarily think those things are bad, but they can kind of create a sort of hierarchy. But Christianity has this belief that every person is valuable because they’re made in the image of God. So for me, thinking that my refugee friends were valuable if they converted or if they assimilated to American culture, [that was] just flipped on its head.
Do you have any spiritual practices that help you cultivate the attention to notice God’s presence in our world?
One interesting practice might be reading the gospels and paying attention to this: who were the people who talked to Jesus and received him and his kingdom as bad news? And then just making mental notes of that. I get asked by churches and other people mostly in my hometown of Portland, “How can we help refugees or how can we love on them?” And I’m sort of a wet blanket because I don’t think refugees need your help or your outreach, but they need neighbors, right? They need neighbors to do life with them.
Most people are living such segregated lives and their lives are already on such a trajectory away from the neighborhoods that are lower income and diverse. These are hugely spiritual issues to me because until you’re living in proximity to people, until you have to look at your neighbors face-to-face, neighbors who come from a different America than you do, I just don’t think it’s going to change you for the long haul.
Photos by Jared Whitney.