A Reality of Refugees

The challenges of loving your neighbor amid fear and the unknown.

I should have acknowledged a long time ago that the two worlds that I inhabited were vastly disparate. My work weeks were full of tears and laughter as an English teacher for newcomers to Canada. You want to cry when a Chinese woman doesn’t want to sit next to a woman wearing a hijab because the Chinese woman is afraid that the woman in the hijab is a terrorist and is hiding a bomb somewhere in her English vocabulary worksheets. You can’t help but laugh when the hijab-wearer reveals that she is a Christ-follower, who continues to wear her hijab out of fear of how her community will ostracize her when she reveals the Christ-God who has won her heart.

My weekends involved drinking wine on patios with my pensive church family. We would talk about how we were probably letting ISIS into our communities when the Canadian government announced that it would sponsor 25,000 Syrian refugees. In essence, we were saying that some of these Syrian refugees probably did have bombs hidden in their vocabulary worksheets. Maybe it’s true. Maybe there is no way of avoiding the truth.

D.L. Mayfield gives voice to straddling two cultural worlds at the same time in her book Assimilate or Go Home. After spending nearly ten years working with refugee communities around the United States, Mayfield’s memoir chronicles her questions and growth in places where God shows up in less than miraculous ways.

Mayfield lived among Somali Bantu communities in Portland, Oregon. Drawing from that experience, she suggests we all inhabit two worlds at the same time. In pursuing the kingdom of God, she initially looked for it in much more romantic terms than it is presented.

Mayfield describes the kind of world she encountered, devoid of the heroism that she had expected: “The kingdom of God was so small, like a nest of cockroaches, a work-book full of scribbles and scratches, shared laughter over the absurdities of the world. It was everywhere I looked; in the end, I just needed the eyes to see it.” (44) The absurdity was the cocooned glory of God, in the process of being revealed—for now, just a few scribbles of the story.

Mayfield tears away at hyper-spirituality with gentle candor, inviting her readers to participate in religion that’s embodied in acts of giving. Mayfield describes her spiritual gifts as baking cupcakes and sitting on sofas.

She acknowledges that in being a neighbour to Somali Bantus, she “was chained by [her] own fear, ignorance, and a genuine lack of experience.” (134) But she also reminds readers that it does not require an out-of-body encounter with God to be a good neighbor. Whether your hurdle is fear, or apathy, or busyness, or love of self, being a good neighbor might simply mean sitting with a neighbor over a cupcake. If people cultivate such habits, the world may change.

If you’re like me, this news comes as a bit of a relief. As one not prone to public activism, changing the world through eating cupcakes with people I may not usually spend time with sounds more like the kind of world I want rather than taking to the streets to protest the discrimination-du-jour.

While this is the kind of world that I want, my reaction to Mayfield’s words also makes me wonder if it is my political apathy (often one of my strengths) that prefers to think of cupcakes on couches changing the world. Because Mayfield’s genre is memoir and not political diatribe, she does not address how people ought to live with those whom they fear or with whom they are just plain uncomfortable. What if, for me, being a good neighbor to refugees doesn’t really count because I already feel warm fuzzies for them? For me, being a good neighbor may look like taking cookies to a CEO and acknowledging that CEOs are also made in the image of God.

Mayfield presents her life, acknowledging that it has been full of failure. Yet when I read Mayfield’s book, I don’t view her as the failure that she apparently thinks she is. I see someone who simply had a dream– and don’t most of us? — and had her life and her faith re-routed when reality did not line up with the dream.

Maybe it’s just me, but this reality of not-living-up-to-our-dreams sounds reminiscent of about ninety-six percent of my life. Maybe we are not failures. Maybe we are being re-routed by a gracious God who actually knows what’s best and who is actually bringing his kingdom to this mess that all of us have made.

This is the crux of the story and the crucible for living it: those neighbors, the ones that neither you nor I can stand, the ones for which we want to build a wall and hang a sign that reads KEEP OUT —those neighbors — those neighbors are God’s way of showing us more love and more grace than we have eyeballs to see. Don’t close your eyes to block out the mess. Open them—and build.

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Becky Brown is completing a fellowship at the Trinity Fellows Academy where she can often be found writing personal essays, stories, and songs just for the fun of it. She is proficient in most things that relate to the Pacific Northwest, being snarky, and miscommunicating with human beings.    

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