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When the Elephant Dances, the Mouse May Die

Dr. Miriam Adeney, an anthropologist, missiologist, author, and associate professor of World Christian Studies at Seattle Pacific University, recounted the following story that an African Christian friend told her.

“Let me tell you a story about Americans,” an African Christian friend told her.

“Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, ‘Mouse, let’s have a party!’ Animals gathered from far and near. They ate. They drank. They sang. And they danced. And nobody celebrated more and danced harder than Elephant. After the party was over, Elephant exclaimed, ‘Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!’

But Mouse did not answer.

‘Mouse, where are you?’ Elephant called. He looked around for his friend, and then shrank back in horror. There at Elephant’s feet lay Mouse. His little body was ground into the dirt. He had been smashed by the big feet of his exuberant friend, Elephant. Sometimes, that is what it is like to do mission with you Americans,” the African storyteller commented. “It is like dancing with an Elephant.”

Elephant and Mouse

A sadder story: Elephant doesn’t even notice the harm he causes Mouse

As sad as Dr. Adeney’s story is, a new storyline is emerging among African leaders that is even sadder. Elephant doesn’t realize the harm he is causing Mouse. Mouse pretends to enjoy the dance and sometimes he really thinks he enjoys it. With a good conscience, good intentions, and desire to help, Elephant is convinced that his exuberant dance is just what God is using to save his brothers and sisters in the Mouse world from destruction. If two independent adults are hurting each other in a consensual relationship and liking it, fully convinced they are helping each other, what do you do? That’s the frustration of some leaders who see this new storyline as troubling and perplexing.

In this storyline, the Elephant doesn’t exclaim,  “Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!” Because of that, Elephant doesn’t notice that “Mouse did not answer”. Elephant also doesn’t ask, “Mouse, where are you?” Neither does he look around for his friend and so doesn’t shrink back in horror. He doesn’t see Mouse laying at his feet and He doesn’t realize that he has smashed Mouse with his big feet and exuberant dance.

What Elephant does is that he runs back home to Elephant country to tell other Elephants what a great party he had in Mouse country and how exuberantly he danced there. In fact he tells them that Mouse enjoyed the dance so much that Mouse cannot wait for the next party!

It’s not that Elephant doesn’t care about the opinion of Mouse or those in Mouse country. It’s rather that he is oblivious to it. Or perhaps that he cares more about showing off his accomplishments to other Elephants at home who haven’t danced in Mouse country before.

Worse than not noticing is that if any Mouse or even a prudent Elephant tried to tell those of the family of exuberant dancing Elephants to watch their dancing in case they might hurt Mouse, they would not listen. In fact, they might call them jealous or uninformed or something worse. A little prone to being unteachable, exuberant dancing Elephants tend to continue the cycle of Mouse smashing over and over again.

 

Both Elephant and Mouse are broken

Worst of all, if Mouse is not dead, he keeps inviting Elephant back again and again to come for yet another dance. If he’s dead other Mouse would invite Elephant back. You look at Mouse with tears in your eyes and ask, “Has no one ever told you that you are worth more than this?” Mouse is stuck in this deadly cycle because Mouse is hungry. The only way he knows to have a party thrown where he can eat and drink  is by inviting Elephant. Yes, he knows that he might get smashed and die in Elephant’s exuberant dance. But he says to himself, “there is much famine and hunger in this land. If nothing changes, I would die from the hunger anyway. At least when Elephant comes, there is feasting and drinking before the dance. If I die during the dance, at least I will die on a full stomach, not an empty one. Perhaps, I may survive and only lose a limb.” They speak like Jacob, “If I am bereaved, I am bereaved” (Gen. 43:14) or like Esther, “if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). And so this cycle continues, almost like an addiction that the Mouse is stuck in.

The presence of extreme corruption is causing a suffocating poverty in many of these countries. In these countries, there are very few things that one can do to improve their lives without being asked to pay exorbitant bribes. It makes living in these nations like living in a desert of opportunity where there is a great famine and hunger among the people for opportunity to improve themselves. As such, they find inviting Elephant an option that is bearable.

A Mouse Opens Up and Talks His Heart

A concerned friend had a discussion with a Mouse that frequently invited Elephants to come and dance with him. In fact, saying that this Mouse frequently invited Elephants to dance with him doesn’t even come close to painting the whole picture. He didn’t simply invite Elephants he knew to come and dance with him; he was an Elephant seeker! He went to great lengths to make friends with new Elephants just so that he could invite them to come dance with him.

Concerned friend: “I get it that you invite these Elephants to come and dance with you even at great risk because you see them as the only source of food for the hunger you have and see around you. Have you considered having the Elephants send resources instead of coming themselves? Besides if they do that, they will save the expensive airfares that they have to incur and the risks involved in international travel. They may instead send those resources to you. That way, you get the help you need without risking getting killed in the process.”

Elephant seeking Mouse: The Mouse laughed at his concerned friend and said, “You don’t know what you are talking about. I wish things were that simple, but they are not.  I wish Elephant brothers and sisters could do that, but from my personal experience, I don’t think there is any chance of succeeding with that approach. Elephant brothers and sisters are some of the nicest people in the world, but they also have weaknesses just like we do. Many Elephants brothers and sisters I know are thrill lovers. They love the experience and adventure. They have fun coming here and would never give any significant amount money if they weren’t part of the fun, thrill, and adventure of coming. Besides, when they come, they raise money from other Elephants brothers and sisters at churches and in Elephant communities. Those at home wouldn’t give the money either if they didn’t know that an Elephant was coming. That’s the only reason I invite our brothers and sisters from overseas. Experience has taught me that they wouldn’t give help any other way. And you know what is really bad about it? I have to lie to them and tell them that we need them coming! That really sucks. If an elephant were to ask me if we have need for them or not, I would say we need them to come even though I know we don’t need them to physically come. Why? Because I know that telling an Elephant sister that she is not needed automatically means she is not going to send any significant support and we can’t afford to live without their support. It’s better for them to come and hurt us and give us the support.”

“Also, I believe that many Elephant brothers and sisters don’t trust us as equals. They often act like God when they work with us–I guess they struggle with God complexes while we struggle with inferiority complexes. They think they have the best ideas and can do things better and faster and they need to come and lead things themselves for them to be involved. Many times, when they say they want to involve us in the leadership process, I personally often feel its simply that they want our names on the board list or on some papers. But when push comes to shove, our input rarely determines the course of the work. They have the money and they pay for the things they like to get done. Remember the saying, ‘He who pays the piper calls the tunes?’ It’s a frustrating world. Elephants are really good people but they are just as broken as we are. Many of our people have inferiority complexes and see Elephants as Gods. They are also just as broken and have no problem accepting the Godhood and acting it out.”

God is bringing healing to both Elephant and Mouse

This version of events is sadder than the original and many experts think is truer. But thanks be to God that he is transforming many exuberant dancing, feet stomping, Elephants into more prudent, slow, conscientious dancers who dance slowly with Mouse as a man with a woman he loves. Praise be to God who is also teaching many Mouses that they don’t have to view their own Elephant brothers and sisters as superior to them, that God, not the Elephant is the true owner and source of all blessings.

I’m an American citizen and love my Christian brothers and sisters in the West tremendously. With that love, I urge us to heed to the teaching of this story. I think the friend who told Dr. Adeney did it out of love. This new storyline is also being brought to life out of love. We Elephants certainly have good intentions, but good intentions are not enough. I can testify that we have great zeal for the Lord and great zeal to help our poor brothers and sisters overseas. However, we don’t often have the knowledge and wisdom that should go with that zeal. The Bible says:

“It is dangerous to have zeal without knowledge, and the one who acts hastily makes poor choices.” Prov. 19:2 NET

 

Here are two things to consider when we serve abroad.

1) We could be causing more harm to the people we want to help than we realize. I’ve caused a fair amount of harm to the poor myself in my attempt to help them and have seen this unfortunate thing repeated so many times. Like I often say, passion has extremely self-centered tendencies. Passion is like a horse that can drive you either to success or to destruction with equal ease. Wisdom is the bridle that we must put on it to make sure that the horse of passion and zeal only carries us to success, not to destruction.

2) To avoid harm, it will cost us much more than it would be to do something quickly and take pictures to show our churches, friends, and family how much good our efforts have brought about. We must be ready to follow best practices in poverty alleviation.

3) A sure sign that we would likely cause harm to the poor is that we cavalierly go out “in faith” to go and change the world. We are likely to cause harm if we don’t continue to work out the details with fear and trembling, knowing fully well that we are not exonerated from guilt from harming the poor simply because we claim to have been ignorant or had good intentions.  Even if we were experts with significant training in poverty alleviation who had been working in developing countries for decades, we must approach each community with patience, preparation because each case is different.

Listen to what the apostle Paul says of himself:

“My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:4 NIV). The same passage is rendered in the NLT as “My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide.”

If you take a close look at the Bible, you will discover that God took a tremendous amount of time to train and prepare each person that he called. Just because we have a clear conscience or good intentions doesn’t mean that we are right.

Now, this shouldn’t make us paranoid about helping the poor. Instead, it should make us diligent in understanding the best practices in orphan care. In addition to that, it should cause us to collaborate with others and learn from others who also are called to serve the poor. Above all, we need to surrender our wills to God and sincerely pray for wisdom.

 

Question: What are some of the ways you have seen that we can hurt the poor in our attempt to serve them? What are some of the things we can do to avoid hurting our poor brothers and sisters in our attempt to help? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and help someone else learn from you!

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15 Comments

  1. I am a current student at Austin Bible College.
    I am considering serving only in my own community (wherever I live), but this illustration of Elephant-Mouse relationship applies to the domestic aid program too.

    –We can hurt the poor in our attempt to serve them if:
    (1) we don’t assess the situation wisely and humbly with compassion;

    (2) we merely treat the symptoms without thinking through how it would affect the situation, or insufficiently give away “help” without sufficient training and accountability system;

    (3) we don’t have the “helped” actively engage in the alleviation effort, thinking they have nothing to offer;

    (4) we forget that the poverty alleviation is a part of preaching the gospel, and not vice versa.

    At times, the Lord definitely compels us to give to the poor spontaneously (and the Lord knows what He is doing), but any type of ministry that seeks to help the poor developmentally should consider these four key points. After all, we want to see the poor be reconciled to the Lord and be what God created them to be, able to support themselves and help others.

    The more I think about this, the more I recognize how so many programs and ministries have hurt the poor in our attempt to serve them.
    I am grateful for the opportunity to glean wisdom from people like Dr. Acha and classes at Austin Bible College.
    Looking forward to learning more and applying these principles.

    God bless.

    • Akiko! We’re so happy to have a student like you with ABI. You are teachable and flexible to the lessons from the Holy Spirit. You have a good heart but are surrendered to learn and gain insight and wisdom. I know God will use you for great things!

  2. Thank you for that challenging but yet liberating account. I am a “Mouse” and have “Elephant” friends with whom I partnered to do development support projects in my country. I have desired that we do our work as an equal partnership where we have equal control. At end of day I always have felt that as they have the purse, so it is in reality with important decision making. Truth is I found that as “local partnerd”, er were serving the role of facilitating their “Project Trip”. This always included 3 weeks: 2 for construction work and 1 for their sightseeing and hokidayiing.
    As local development partner Ive had great challenges. Whilst Ive received funda for the implementation of the project and so used them, the local receiving community has become suspicious of the local organisation as we are “getting and keeping the money for ourselves”. You see the local people want to directly relate with the people (Elephants) who at the end of their visit collect and donate their older used “clothes/dirty laundry” to the “poor mice”.

    Our Elephant friends have throughout the entire time remained oblivious, whilst being always ready and able to berate and poitou out our inabilities and failures.

    • I am so sorry to hear that you have personally experienced this dynamic. It’s a sad, but yet true, story. Many “elephants” have good hearts…good intentions…but they don’t ever stop to think that perhaps what they’re doing is actually harming the very people they are trying to help. This subject is something very important at Austin Bible Institute, which is why books and lectures discussing this commonly overlooked concept are key in many of our Effective Ministry to the Poor classes.

      We hope that, with the proper education, we can send out our students with improved worldviews and sensitivity that was previously out of mind.

  3. What a great eye opening article. My heart breaks in the realization that I have thought and acted as an elephant. One thing that really stuck out to me was when Dr. Acha spoke about elephants having a superiority complex. I’m ashamed to say that the first time I traveled overseas I went thinking I was somehow better then the locals because I grew up in the “best country”. I thought that I could solve all their problems by giving some money, serving the community, and then go home after only a week. Oh how I was wrong. I’ve learned that it takes investment in time and relationships to create change, especially when it comes to poverty alleviation. I also agree with Dr. Acha that we need to asses every situation and use our God given wisdom to best help our poor brothers and sisters. It’s so easy to do what makes us feel good but it’s our responsibility not to take the easy road and to treat poverty alleviation in a God honoring way.

  4. The part of this article that had the biggest impact on me was the realization that both the mouse and the elephant are broken. We are all a MESS, as we have been learning in class. We get stuck in the cycle of our brokenness. The mouse sees no other way than to put up with the suffering of the trampling of the elephant because that suffering is nothing compared to the suffering of hunger and need. He is choosing the less painful route but it is still painful. That’s not the only answer, it’s not the way God intends for the mice to live. The elephant gets stuck in the cycle of doing missions as we have made normal without stopping to see if the impact is having the desired, positive effect. This article along with other teachings and readings for our class are shedding light on the truth that this dance needs to change and it is impacting me.

  5. Having worked in India for the last 11 years I completely agree with this post; too many times I have seen (and been) ‘elephants’ coming into this country with the very best of intentions but the results, more often than not, are damaging.

    I think that it is important to realize that foreigners can play their part in poverty alleviation; so much of the time though we westerners are not willing (or able) to commit the long term resources/investment that is required. We create a mentality of dependency on the west rather than one of independency. Our focus, in providing help, should be empowering locals not only to dig themselves out of their holes but establish the process or method of digging.

    There have been times in the past where short term volunteers to my organization have come up with suggestions to overcome certain obstacles that are just bad ideas –they may work in the west but this is not the west. An electrician who is trained to work for the US power grid, though he is an expert in his field in America can actually be the worst person to wire a house in India. He would bring with him his culture, methods and understandings; foreign concepts that most probably would not be maintainable here in India. Ultimately his work could end up being more expensive, prone to problems and unsustainable (as Indian electricians wouldn’t necessarily know how to fix the problem). It is not practical (or financially viable) to expect to be able to call out the American electrician every time you need to fix a problem or add a new power socket to a room.

    That said, it is not impossible for an elephant to learn to dance.

    I have been that stomping elephant many times in the past; I have caused harm where I had hoped to be blessing. Through time, experience and God’s grace I am learning the steps of the dance; learning to not just dance with my mouse brothers and sisters but learn from them. I am learning the importance of putting away my western ideologies and superiority and trying to humble myself, listen and learn from those who have been on the ground a lot longer than me.

  6. What struck me in this article is how the elephants go back to their elephant country and tell everyone how much fun the party was and needed. You know, I think I am that elephant. I’ve done 1 mission trip and I came back and told people how much good we did but this has me thinking, how much good did I really do? Yes, some people said they came to Christ but what did I do for them afterwards. Yes, we gave them some money but did that really help to be able to generate income on their own or did it handicap them even more. This has opened my eyes to second guessing my whole reason to going on mission trips. Where is my heart? Am I doing more harm than good? These are questions I have to ask myself so I don’t become that elephant again.

  7. This is extremely eye opening. It hurts me to know that when we go on short term mission trips we could potentially cause harm and most of the time we do, but it is a blessing that my eyes have been opened and hopefully God will help me to have a more effective impact when I go on mission trips. When we go on mission trips, we really must consider what will be the best way to help and make sure it gets carried out in the correct way so that it helps and does not smash the people or country.

  8. Hi Kenneth,
    This is not a problem of Westerners only. Even those who live in countries where there are poor people and orphans are going it all wrong in the name of helping. I have come across many people in my country who in the name of helping are doing great harm. They want to assist the poor according to their own terms. When the poor air their opinion on the same, they are threatened with stoppage of the assistance they are getting. Since the poor need the assistance, they end up giving in but bruised, disillusioned and with a feeling of inadequency.
    This hurt the poor more than the assistance they get. It makes them feel inferior and lack self esteem.

    • Thanks, Joyce, for sharing. I totally agree with you! Harm is being caused to the poor by people from all countries, races, religious and languages. The problem of harming the poor is not a western problem alone. It is an African problem too.

  9. This is a great example of what a lot of short term mission trips have the outcome of. Like you said it is not westerners intentions on hurting when trying to help but because they are just following a line of other leaders who go and participate in the same short term mission trips they become oblivious to the harm that they are causing. I agree that when this truth is revealed to people that it should not keep them from making any efforts to help in fear that they may cause more harm, but that they seek to receive knowledge on the area that they are serving and training to help them serve in a way that pleases God, and to check their motives behind serving. If their motive isn’t correct, then their actions are sure to fall short before the Lord.

    • Thanks for sharing Danielle. You bring up a very crucial point. Leadership is key to great orphan care. We need more leaders who stand for best practices in orphan care, model them, and ask others to follow. A failure I’ve seen in our leadership in the global church is that some leaders tend to do things that they know will make people give more money to the churches or their ministries and shy away from better ways that followers don’t seem to love and would not donate toward

  10. I have been on a number of international mission trips. I seen the hurt that Westerners have caused in these poor communities when we come in thinking that we know it all we can fix it all. As much as we want to love and help them in their time of need, not all the efforts we put forth are necessary. When people come with a “God-complex” (I have the power to help these poor people because I work hard and earn my status in life), they make the locals feel inferior and undermined. These people also harm themselves into thinking they have done some good, they are better Christians than others somehow, and never realize they have only caused the foreigners to become codependent and passively insulted.

    • Thanks for sharing what God has opened your eyes to see. The brokenness is mutual. We Westerners have God-complexes. Our brothers in the Majority World have Inferiority Complexes. Both of these are bad. They both disregard the sovereignty of God. Both fail to understand that God really is the one who gives and takes away at will. They fail to see that the race is not for the swift nor the battle for the strong, that it’s God who determines everything as he works in and through us.