“We don’t need you here.”
Last summer, we needed a new internationally located partner to host a group of our college students for Spring Break. I knew I wanted that partner to be on the ground, full time in the community they serve. I knew I wanted them to be deeply connected to local life and culture, to listen to local voices. I knew we needed a trip that would push our students in their understanding of why they served for a week.
And I knew I found it when my friend Michelle told me she’d be willing, but the reality was, they didn’t really need short term teams.
In my mind, if not out loud, I begged at that moment. Please take ours, please, please, please take ours. And then tell them THAT.
Tell them they are not needed.
Perhaps saying that to them can help them not to be elephants. The parable goes like this.
“Would you like to know what it is like to do mission with Americans? Let me tell you a story,” said a ministry leader in West Africa.
Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, “Mouse, let’s have a party!”
Animals gathered from far and near. They ate, and drank, and sang, and danced. And nobody celebrated more exuberantly than the Elephant.
After it was over, Elephant exclaimed, “Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!”
But Mouse didn’t answer.
“Where are you?” Elephant called. Then he shrank back in horror. There at his feet lay the Mouse, his body ground into the dirt — smashed by the exuberance of his friend, the Elephant.
“Sometimes that is what it is like to do mission with you Americans,” the African storyteller concluded. “It is like dancing with an Elephant.”
Our students love to dance. But they don’t even realize they’re elephants. And so I wanted someone to tell them that. That if they are not careful, they can hurt others, and that isn’t worth any amount of cute Facebook worthy photos, or journal entries, or stories to tell folks who responded to support letters.
Certainly there are legitimate reasons to take short term trips. But as we prepare for them, we often ask elephant-questions.
How do we make sure our students stay busy? ‘bond’ with each other? come home transformed?
Those aren’t bad questions for a youth leader or trip organizer to ask. I just wonder if there are better ones. Deeper ones.
For instance, what would it take to make using this high volume of resource for such a short experience worth it? How do we really learn from our hosts? Are we engaging in a partnership that is transformative to this community, regardless of how we feel at the end of our time?
The best five words you could tell a group of party-throwing elephants might just be “We don’t need you here.”