D.L. Mayfield on celebration, savior complexes, and neighbor love
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59
For much of her life, D.L. Mayfield wanted to be a missionary. She read missionary biographies as a child, traveled to India as a teenager, and attended Bible college, where she learned how to share the Gospel through logic and doctrine. She prayed to be used by God. And then a community of refugees—Somali Bantu Muslims—landed in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.
These refugees fled terror and torture at home only to end up poor and neglected in the United States. They became her friends and eventually her neighbors, welcoming Mayfield into their world of a foreign America. Her missionary zeal ebbed as she encountered God in the people she was trying to save. Instead of being useful, she discovered that she was loved.
Mayfield’s 2016 book of essays, Assimilate or Go Home, traces this transformation from do-gooder to neighbor. The book is a story of wounding, healing, and being converted to Jesus’ lowly way of love. Today she continues to write about refugees, racism, and religiosity, asking the question: What if we took seriously Christ’s radical claims that the poor are blessed and the kingdom of heaven is at hand?
When he preached the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus overturned everything the world calls worthy. He named blessing in poverty and beauty in overlooked places; he insisted on renewed vision. In Book of Hours, the poet Rilke imagines God forming and guiding us into the world. “Nearby is the country they call life,” God says. Nearby is the kingdom, this country that Jesus inaugurated. The problem is that we, with cloudy vision and fearful hearts, can’t always see it. Our eyes need to adjust.
Befriending the poor and displaced adjusted Mayfield’s eyes to God’s presence in redlined neighborhoods, public schools, and the living rooms of neighbors, and now she catches glimmers of this goodness everywhere. Her writing trains our vision to see flickers of God’s presence in the world, and it nudges us into friendship with those whom Jesus called blessed. After all, they are the ones who will guide us into the kingdom.
Nations: You were raised on missionary biographies and dreamed of serving unreached people. Now you call yourself “a failed missionary.” What changed over the years you spent living in immigrant and refugee communities?
Mayfield: Through my relationship with Somali Bantu refugees here in Portland, I started to practice converting them and giving them all the good news that I had been learning in my Bible college—and it was just a complete and utter failure. First, because of language barriers, and second, because the Somali Bantu refugees were in survival mode. America was still a very difficult place for them to learn how to survive. They were also still processing trauma. So I had to face myself in some ways I never had to before, because I didn’t have the answers either spiritually or in general for how to help them. These were huge systemic issues I was facing, and it brought me to a little bit of a crisis of faith.
Looking back now, I’m really glad for that crisis of faith and for that failure. I was 20 years old and thought I had every single answer about God. It’s sort of absurd when I think about it. I wanted Assimilate or Go Home to be less an explanation of what it’s like to be a refugee or to work with refugees in the U.S., and to spend more time interrogating my own savior complex, and the places I had learned that savior complex from: the evangelical, white Christian church, and my Bible college. In the end, I’m really happy—I have not converted any of my friends into a white evangelical Christian. And I think that’s good! I don’t think that’s God’s dream for the world, like I used to.
You write, “I am poor, in that I do not know if I have the strength to see the kingdom of God as it was meant to be played out.” How do you think God’s kingdom was meant to be played out, and why might this burden us?
I think the simplest explanation is laid out in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes: taking who Jesus says is blessed literally. Actually living our lives as if the poor or the poor in spirit, the meek, the sad, the hungry, the sick, the persecuted—as if these are the most blessed people in our world.
When I was in Bible college I had this really strong sense that the people I most closely resembled were the Pharisees: the religious, upright people who went to school and who studied to have all the right answers about God. I’m a pastor’s kid, and I’ve always been very obsessed with the things of God and with being right. Something that’s very sobering is that the Pharisees and the upright folks were basically the only ones who walked away from an experience with Jesus without being liberated—and I really took that to heart. It terrified me, because I want to be liberated.
What is it about religiosity that keeps us from experiencing the kingdom? That keeps us afraid of the kingdom? Everywhere you look in Scripture you can see this, even in Isaiah when it says, “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low…” [Isaiah 40:4, NIV]. That’s probably good news for the people in the valley and bad news for the people on the mountain, this equitable kingdom. But … on the other side of this fear and the shifting of our world is going to be liberation, and it is going to be something beautiful and just.
A common theme in your writing is the “upside-down kingdom.” What does this phrase mean to you?
It’s just such a lovely and succinct way of saying that Jesus’ ways are opposite to the ways of the world.
I had this pretty transformative experience reading Luke 4 when Jesus is announcing his kingdom. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” [Luke 4:18-19, NIV]. For some reason those words no longer just sounded religious to me. I really understood that Jesus meant them literally. He is good news to people in poverty! To people who are oppressed, and sick, and all of these things. I thought, Wow, then I need to be seeking out those people. That’s where Jesus said he’d be and where he said his ministry would be.
I think that my Christianity had been really influenced by the upward mobility of the American dream. People who didn’t fit neatly into that were left to the wayside and I was starting to see in Scripture that it’s the people who are poor and sick and sad and oppressed who are the center of the faithful in the Gospel. They are the ones who believe and receive the good news. And so [the upside-down kingdom] is a whole different way of even [understanding] who we should be looking to for spiritual guidance.
Where have you discovered this surprising kingdom in your own life?
I was propelled into relationships with Somali Bantu refugees by my desire to convert them and do good and make God love me, but it’s been amazing the benefits I have received from being involved in these communities. It’s been about 13 years now since I first started working with refugees, and I’ve lived and worked in refugee and immigrant communities ever since. Every day feels like my birthday in a way. I love it so much.
In some ways I feel like they are the ones who are discipling me in the ways of Christ and in the ways of his kingdom. Of course there are some challenges, but there are challenges no matter where you live. My neighbors [are] actually forcing me to make life changes and forcing me to really answer the question, Do I love my neighbor as myself?
I thought I was going to go and bring Christ to these communities that I had been told were lost. And instead I met Christ in their apartments, through them: through them hugging me and kissing me and making me food when I got married and had kids.
If God’s goodness exists all around us, in apartments and public schools and other places we often overlook, what are some spiritual practices we can do to experience it?
One of the ways we can beat back against the empire and against consumerism and against utilitarianism is to show up in very small ways and to keep noticing.
I love prayer-walking my neighborhood. It’s awesome to do it day after day. You start to notice what flowers bloom in what season. You start to notice who moves in and who moves out and what businesses are nearby and which ones are coming in and you get so much better connected to your world and your neighborhood. Maybe I just want to learn how to pay attention, knowing that’s going to translate in many other directions, including paying attention to God and what God is doing in our world.
It seems like God transforms us through counter-cultural choices.
Most people are living such segregated lives, and their lives are already on such a trajectory away from the neighborhoods that are lower income or diverse. Americans have this fundamental sin of segregation that has infected everything. So I want to tell people, “You need to start looking at your mortgage and the school you send your kids to; those will be the two most important discipleship decisions you ever make. Or your churches: does everyone look like you? Do they think like you? Does everyone eat the same food as you?” These are hugely spiritual issues 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.
You surround yourself with people who have faced—and continue to face—suffering, persecution, and isolation. Yet you’re also committed to celebration. What does celebration teach us in a world shot through with both beauty and terror?
Our culture as a whole really likes the idea of celebration that doesn’t cost a whole lot … and frivolous celebration makes me really angry. So when I say “commitment to celebration,” I don’t mean disengaging from reality or trying to create your own perfect haven for you and your children. I mean it in a completely different way.
[For example,] I love funfetti cake so much; I make it all the time, and I make it for my friends who live in really hard places, who have really hard things going on in their lives. [I’m] coming to the realization that making cakes for [a] friend is a way of me beating back the darkness of Satan and what he’s doing in the world; of our choices and how our sin affects other people. [It’s a way of] showing up and continuing to celebrate these tiny signs of the kingdom—and to me, funfetti cake is a sign of the kingdom of God. It’s a way of practicing thankfulness and of having faith in a really loving God, who is very present in our world.
My friend Chris Hoke wrote a book called Wanted and in it he talks about how Jesus told Peter, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” [Matthew 16:18, NIV]. Jesus told us that he’s going to build his church at the gates of hell, at the gates of Hades, and therefore we need to go to wherever that is in our world. That’s where we’re going to find Jesus, and that’s where we’re going to find his church. I’m like, “Yes, let’s go—and let’s bring cake.”