We Were Just Sitting There Talking When…

When Wife-unit and I got married, someone made a speech about how they were convinced we were going to change the world. We struggled to change a tire on a Fiat 500 earlier this week, so I suspect that that claim has only grown more embarrassing with every passing year.

In our defence, we lived fairly intensely back then and people were often gripped by the sheer importance of the work that we all together were doing. We were making history, as young leaders in the first Presbyterian church plant in Ireland in a century. We were on the sharp edge of a movement that was sweeping the western world, establishing new and vibrant church communities that would rejuvenate Christianity and, to use the deeply arrogant language that was prevalent at the time, “incarnate” the Kingdom of God.

I don’t know what we were doing.

I share this bafflement with my friend, D.L. Mayfield. In her new book Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a failed missionary on rediscovering faith, we get to follow along the journey as she discovers a vocation for ministry among refugees and then in the course of doing that ministry, learning that much of what she thought was ministry was wrong. Reflecting on my own experience in the light of this beautifully written book, I am prompted to suggest the following koan: True vocations start from mis-hearings.

The book is structured around four movements: Anticipation and Excitement, Reality Sets In, Depression and Culture Shock, Stabilization. These are the four stages traveled by the typical refugee as they settle into their sanctuary society. It is a revealing insight to the subtle theological weight of this work that Mayfield present ministry in terms of distressing displacement.

Mayfield tells how she hurled herself into ministry with refugees in her hometown. Fueled by the hagiographies of missionaries and evangelists that she read as a girl, her anticipation was that she would change the world, or at least change their world, those lucky few who would be subject of her attention. I don’t know how good she is at changing tires, but she has likewise failed to change the world.

Critically, the disillusionment and discouragement that she endures in these years of unspectacular ministry consisting of car rides and babysitting, failed English lessons and floundering food exchanges, is a loss of confidence in the traditions and assumptions she had inherited from the evangelical Christianity of her youth and her culture.

In Bible college, I was learning how to evangelize, how to convert those who believed differently than I did. Meeting the refugees was like enrolling in a practicum course: I could use all the tips and tricks I was learning in the classroom and implement them in the real world. Except, of course, nothing ever happened like it did in the textbooks.

The trauma inflicted on a refugee affects their ability to learn and remember. In the torrid tumult of being chased from your homeland, apologetic arguments about the divinity of Christ turn out to not be top of your agenda. Mayfield deftly explores the complex self-motivations that are at work in our outreach, the deep soul-reasoning that makes us hungry to be of use, any old kind of use at all. To say we are justified by faith, by grace, is to say that we cannot vouch for any merit of our own. The long struggle that Mayfield experiences is truly an account of conversion because she painfully comes to the end of her tradition and finds that it cannot convert her friends and it cannot sanctify herself. Our goal in the Christian life is not to make people more like us. To the extent that we seek safety in theological accuracy or in ministry competence (I winced in reminiscence at the evangelical leadership conferences as I read the “Life List” chapter) or in any other avenue that justifies us and our apparently insane insistence that we have the truth of the universe at our disposal, we evade the living God and miss out on the call he actually makes. Or as Mayfield puts it:

“All I over wanted to do was oppress people, in the kindest way possible”

This book is about American Christian experience engaging with American refugees. But it is deeply relevant outside that context because of how it presents an account of ministry as presence. Again and again we find that what matters is being with people. Patient attention to the ways of others is a much more significant aspect of being involved in Christian work than being able to say all the right things or co-ordinate strategy in all the right way.

Throughout the book I couldn’t help thinking of how it resonated with Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. Day was the founder of the Catholic worker movement and she spent her life agitating for the rights of the poor and serving them food from her kitchen. She and her companions lived in community and offered hospitality to everyone who needed it. She did not change the world. Arguably, the plight of the worker is more precarious today than it was fifty years ago. The neighbourhood in which she primarily lived and worked, the Bowery, has now been gentrified beyond all recognition. Her homeland is no closer to pacifism than it was when it was dropping nukes on Japanese kids.

Dorothy Day

She was, in many ways, a failed missionary. She was keenly attentive to the self-deception entailed in do-goodery. She knew that the only antidote to the long loneliness of waiting for the Kingdom was community. She had to be converted out of the conviction of her youth to actually pursue the thing that convinced her.

Day summed up the work of her movement in the following way:

All of them understood the works of mercy – old-fashioned prayer books list them. The corporal ones are to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to harbor the harborless; to ransom the captive; to visit the sick; to bury the dead. The spiritual works are to instruct the ignorant; to counsel the doubtful; to admonish sinners; to bear wrongs patiently; to forgive offenses willingly; to comfort the afflicted; to pray for the living and the dead.

And Mayfield closes her work in the following way:

We aren’t being asked to assimilate, but we are called to make our home here more like the kingdom we have always dreamed about but were too scared to believe was possible. Because God’s dream for the world is coming, looming brighter and brighter on the horizon.

That Kingdom action to which we are called is the business listed in the old-fashioned books. Living with people, eating with people, listening to people, helping people with the concrete things that trouble them. We weren’t called to save the world. We are called to follow the One who has already done that.

When Day looked back on her life – a life full of dramatic and remarkable events – she described it as nothing more than a long stretch of days when “we were just sitting there talking when…” they decided to feed whoever was hungry or set up farms of refuge or publish a newspaper about a longterm green revolution. “It was as casual as all that… it just came about… it just happened.” The ministry of the church that arises from genius technique dismisses such talk as unprofessional or careless. But this is how the work of God occurs. “It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.”

If you are involved in the mission of the church, I think you should buy and read this book. It’s on sale tomorrow.

Your Correspondent, Tugs at the heart, fogs the mind

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