EDITOR’S NOTE: D.L. Mayfield’s new book, Assimilate or Go Home (HarperOne), is an honest and probing account of one young evangelicals attempt to proclaim good news among Somali Bantu refugees. In the midst of her decade-long journey, Mayfield read a collection of letters from Frank Laubach–the only American missionary remembered on a US Postage stamp. She decided to write him a letter of her own.
I do what you did. I sit next to some of the poorest people in the world, ones whose lives are so different from mine that I don’t even bother pretending anymore. We look at sheets of paper, look at the scratches we make together. A few of my students learn. Their eyes track in the right direction, they carefully print the shapes and lines. Most of them do not learn. They sit and they smile at me, they clasp my hand, they want to know how my daughter is doing. Behind their eyes is a cloud of unknowing, the result of traumas stacked up like a pyramid, the current life crises that they ricochet back and forth from.
Someone is always losing their housing. Someone is always losing their medical benefits. A child is always sick, or being beaten up at school, or running away. The husbands are always gone, some dead in the war, some dead by sickness, some with another wife, another woman, some trying desperately to get a visa. They are the poor in America, and they are required to go to classes and to work in day-care centers and to sit and stare at pages with me, the teacher. I do not understand what I am supposed to do. I do not understand how complicated the world is, what the lives of my students are like, how hard it is to quiet bodies and minds and go over the vowel sounds one more time.
I am a little hysterical, these days. I am confused by whether I should feel selfrighteous or cynical. If I were to write a book of letters to my own father, they would read like the journal of a crazy person, someone who is desperately working for God while still being very unclear on whether or not he loves her. I would love to have my face be placed on a stamp someday, if I am being completely honest. Maybe then, finally, I could be sure I had done some good in the world.
At one point, near the end of the book of letters that you wrote to your own dad, you gave me a glimpse into the fraught undercurrents that belied your modern mystic title. On August 21, 1937, you wrote: “So many of the people here and everywhere seem to have more cramped lives and hopeless minds even than I have. I have been trying to teach a boy to read this afternoon, but his mind seems to be like pouring water into a mosquito net. . . . What a tragedy to live in the world he lives in.”
I read that, and I thought: There it is, the despair I feel on a daily basis. But the very next line strikes me just as true, even as it veers wildly off course emotionally: “I felt a warm love for the boy.” That’s all I want.
At times it feels like cramped minds and hopeless lives are all that I am surrounded by. But this is one thought, one fleeting moment in a life that is so full of God and so full of his absence that I can’t be trusted to know my own thoughts at any given moment. Like you, I chose this dream of being a missionary, willingly pursued it, throwing myself into the needs I found around me. To my fellow believers I exhort and encourage love and compassion, trotting out the good works that I have done, my stomach sinking like a stone within me. I myself am so small, so ineffective, neither truly happy nor pleasantly mad. I am tired of wanting to be like you.
But I feel compelled to share this with you, as I think you will understand. More often than not, when I least expect it, the warmth of love overwhelms me. It overtakes me as my students rise up, majestically, from their chairs, scraping the floor, sweeping jumbled papers into grimy backpacks. They always grab me, embrace me, and kiss me on both cheeks. Their bracelets jangle against me, and I am swallowed, just for a moment, into their compassion, into their love for me, the distraught and tired do-gooder, the one who cannot face herself if she isn’t doing some good for the world. Their love enfolds me. And it reminds me of another, greater, love than this.
You had your hill, the one you hiked to all those years ago, sitting and dwelling with God forever on your mind, being radically transformed by a love that transcends explanation. I have my running route, the place where I slowly pound my feet into the pavement of my neighborhood. I run by the infamous mosque, the one where the boys left and went to Ethiopia and became human bombs, hoping to escape the demons in this world. I run by the asphalt company, breathing in the noxious fumes. I run past the older gentlemen sitting on discarded bucket seats, taking a smoke break. I run up my own hill, up the pedestrian bridge that goes over the highway which slices my neighborhood into two. And I stop, at the peak of the bridge, and look over at my city, at the high-rise apartments where so many of my friends and neighbors and students live.
And Frank: I stop at the top of the bridge, sweaty and tired, almost ready to turn back toward home. I think, Why not? There is nothing more to lose, and so much I need to gain. I stand quietly, eyes focused on the thousands of souls that I never could fully see. And I try to be like you, try to pray the love of God on the city. I try to imagine it as an ocean of longing, the beams of the sun transforming into the only presence big enough for all of our needs. And as I pray, I can’t help but hope that the tiniest sliver of that light would fall on me as well.