Jesus, Gentrification, and the Hypocrisy of “Diversity”: An Interview with D.L. Mayfield

Portland, Oregon: percentage change in populations of color (2000-2010). Courtesy Coalition for a Livable Future

D.L. Mayfield’s new book arrives at a difficult moment in American conversations about refugees, the future of Christianity, and the role of religion in an increasingly secular society. Mayfield, who lives and works among refugees in Portland, Oregon, has for several years chronicled her experiences in essays for Christianity Today, Relevant, and McSweeney’s.

In Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith, those collected essays tell the story of a young evangelical woman whose ideas about missionary work as a process of conversion are quickly shattered by the realities of working with Somali Bantu refugees.

Mayfield and I met this summer at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, where I was teaching a class on spiritual writing. My own experiences with missionary stories as a Catholic had been colored by the bleak history of Catholic missions in California, where I grew up, and where scores of Native Americans died due to the missionary efforts of the recently canonized Junipero Serra, among others. More recently, Catholic missionary efforts have focused more on providing food and medical aid in countries like South Sudan, where few secular NGOs have been willing to go. And recent discussions of Tim Kaine’s work in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps have lead to further confusion about what being a Catholic missionary means today: JVC is a “mission of service,” not a mission to convert.

Mayfield’s own evangelical faith has a different approach to missionary work, with conversion often at the top of the list. However, as she quickly discovered working with the Somali Bantu, starry-eyed stories of Jesus were of little interest. The practical realities of living in a new country meant refugees needed less Bible study and more rides to the hospital, help with learning English, and help with navigating social services.

Mayfield’s mission these days can more aptly be described as a hyper-local mission of showing up to help. It is a book that challenges many preconceptions about evangelicalism, missionary work, and what it means to live a life of social justice and faith. 

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Kaya Oakes: Let’s start with the end of your book (without any spoilers), when the meaning of the phrase “failed missionary” becomes clear. Part of this becomes about what Dorothy Day describes as “we were just sitting around talking,” or what we might call the “ministry of showing up with cake.” Can you describe what this means for you?

D.L. Mayfield: For me, the journey of being a failed missionary means that I never managed to convert anyone to becoming a white, westernized Christian just like myself—and what a good thing that turned out to be!

When I was young and thought I knew everything, I started off working with East African refugees with the goal of converting them. But as I got sucked into their lives and spent more and more time with them (it’s been over a decade now) I transitioned into being a friend and activist and eventually a neighbor. Being in long-term relationships with people who are very different from me changed my life. It opened my eyes to how bad things are in the US if you aren’t at the top of the hierarchy.

Ultimately my faith was restored in a God who sees it all and who is asking me to be involved.

I was interested in how Evangelical ideas about missionary work are both similar to and different from Catholic ideas of missionary work. Catholic relief agencies, for example, don’t focus so much on conversion, but that’s part of the terrible history of Catholicism. Whereas Evangelical relief efforts have been criticized for focusing too much on conversion. The book describes your gradual shift away from that notion. What elements of your upbringing led you to believe missionary work was about conversion and why?

I think the idea of a simplistic form of conversion came more from evangelical youth culture—growing up in youth groups and going to events where people were urged to pray one prayer and their life would be changed. In hindsight, the missionary biographies I loved so much as a kid weren’t really about this kind of magical lip-service to God—they were usually about women who went and were very involved in trying to bring about a more equitable kingdom, seeing liberation come both spiritually and socially (obviously, lots of colonialism and imperialism in that story).

As with most young people, my idea that I wanted to be a missionary was really just a vague sense of wanting to do good. Nowadays, I think a lot of that came from an uneasiness with the power structures of the world, and wanting to deal with my own privilege. As an evangelical, there was not a lot of talk about how to get involved in issues of justice work, and so I think I latched onto missionary work as the next best thing. I enrolled in Bible college to get a degree in missions and it turned out I was terrible at apologetics and reciting doctrine.

Now, what I really want to be is a good neighbor, and to learn how to love them as much as I love myself.

On that same note, the fact that many refugees you live and work with are Muslim floats up throughout the book. Given the political tensions of the moment and the attitude of some more conservative evangelicals and Republicans toward Muslims, what do you hope this book can accomplish or contribute to in terms of that national conversation?

My friendships with Muslims have changed my life for the better, and so of course I would like to encourage others to pursue both cross-cultural and interfaith relationships.

But the real truth of it is that the best way to “reach” Muslims (to crib my old evangelical language) is to clean up our own house. Conservative Christianity (that is directly linked with conservative politics) has been so incredibly damaging to the work of peace and justice. I want followers of Christ to call out the fear and hatred of immigrants and refugees being promoted by Christians and to do it publicly.

Currently the national conversation is so skewed that it is hard for me to write about my Muslim friends without having to make the case that not all Muslims are terrorists. This is absurd, and that it has been shaped by religious people grieves me to no end. I don’t recognize this kind of Christianity that is so obsessed with personal safety and maintaining dominant culture. Following Christ has led me to the exact opposite conclusions.

What’s most moving about your book are the stories the refugees you work and live among, and how they both do and don’t manage to assimilate. The language classes you teach, for example: these are often people with no experience of written language and they’re not going to learn English easily. What’s the connection between assimilation and conversion, and the failure to assimilate and the failure to convert?

I think for me the connection is simply one of accepting people for who they are and not putting my expectations on them. In the book I write about one low-income apartment complex I was living in and how I was annoyed because I had baked someone cookies but they wouldn’t open the door to me.

My friend, who had lived in such communities much longer than me, told me I should be grateful that I was experiencing an authentic interaction instead of false acceptance based on traditional models of charity—the kind giver and the grateful recipient.

It made me realize how all I ever want to do is oppress people in the kindest way possible.

Now I am trying to work towards authenticity in my relationships and interactions, which has meant accepting some truths like: some people (due to trauma, age, or learning disabilities) will simply never learn English or never learn cultural norms or never feel fully like they are at home on this earth ever again. There is an inherent dignity in learning to accept that, and moving on, and getting down to the business of making life a little more bearable in the present.

You grew up steeped in religion, went to a Bible college, and have written for mainstream Christian magazines like Christianity Today and Relevant. How would you describe your current relationship with evangelical Christianity, and how have these experiences living and working with refugees shaped that relationship?

In some ways evangelicalism is just is a part of me, and I am comfortable using the insider language and in certain ways find it comforting to be around people who understand me in that way. It seems like evangelical Christians are where I can most be of use in my writing and activism, so I take that pragmatic approach.

However, in my day-to-day life I often feel very estranged from the normal trappings of Christianity—the emphasis on raising children in the best (safest) way possible, for example, or the importance of attending church, or debating doctrine. This all seems very far removed from my life—there are precious few church plants in poorer neighborhoods, for instance, or it can be hard to be a part of organizations that don’t allow women in leadership—and sometimes I feel very despondent about it all.

My life has become very small, and is intensely focused on my neighborhood. Both my refugee neighbors and my neighbors who come from generational poverty have shown how both racism and classism are so pervasive in publishing and in many organizations and institutions, which also makes it harder to interact in those spaces. I have to always be thinking about the opportunities I have and at this point I hope to be involved in creating more pathways for others.

At this point, my husband jokes that we are ecumenical anarchists—we will pray and eat and play with anyone in our lives, but we are inherently distrustful of institutions that exist to uphold themselves (and are not involved in the work of meeting the spiritual and economic needs of the neighborhood).

Also, I am really interested in the voices of those who are at the margins of Christianity. They have so much to teach me.

On that same note, can you talk a little bit about what it’s like being labeled as a “Christian writer” today? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Can Christian writing (per se) still be social justice writing if it only reaches a Christian audience?

I’m not quite sure about this one. In the beginning, I liked to call myself a conservative Christian writer because I thought it would be interesting to a secular audience. Now I know that for some people, there is just so much baggage that goes along with those words that it can turn people off. I will say that I have often tried to write essays and pieces that didn’t mention God or Christianity or Jesus and but I just can’t do it. It’s what I am thinking about all the time. I am obsessed with this idea that Jesus is with the poor and the sick and the sad and the oppressed, and I am looking for him everywhere.

As to the second part of your question, I believe there are great areas for reform in the church, so I do think it is OK in that sense to speak to a primarily Christian audience. My activism is rooted in a belief that we are to work towards the kingdom of God being established in the here and now as much as we can. We are to fight injustice and inequality, we are to work towards reconciliation and restoration, knowing that this is God’s dream for the world.

In the book, you describe the area you live in in Portland as one of the last pockets where refugees can afford to live. As a Christian, what does it mean to try and resist gentrification? What would Jesus say about it?

To me, gentrification is such a complex issue—but the suffering it produces is not complex at all. In my neighborhood the rents are going up so dramatically that recently arrived refugees can no longer find any apartments based on their stipend from the government (and we live in the most affordable section of Portland).

Very soon indeed there will be very little room for anyone from the lower or working classes to survive—and I want to make a huge stink about that. Our city will lose out on the blessings of God if we don’t create pathways for people on the margins to live here.

People in places like Portland especially say they want diversity but this isn’t true at all. They want to eat ethnic food and interact with people of color who act like white people. But they don’t want to be neighbors with people who are poor and they don’t want to send their kids to a poor school.

In Luke 6 Jesus talks about who should be afraid: woe to you who are rich, to you who are well-fed, to you who laugh now, to you who are popular. I think he said those things because wealth and comfort insulate us from those who are suffering, and it also keeps us from interacting in real and authentic ways with God. To me, gentrification is a picture of how far removed we become as a society to the needs of the poor, to the point that we are secretly glad when they all get pushed out.