Triumph From Tragedy
Five missionaries’ murders were not the end of the story.
BY DAVID M. HOWARD JR.
Friday, January 20, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST
On Jan. 8, 1956, five American missionaries were speared and hacked to death by a group of Auca Indians in the deepest jungles of Ecuador, making headlines around the world. A movie commemorating the 50th anniversary of the event—and the stranger-than-fiction tale that followed—is being released today. “End of the Spear,” based on a 2005 book by Steve Saint, the son of one of the slain missionaries, will be shown in 1,200 theaters across the country.
The five missionaries—Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint and Roger Youderian—were young men eager to bring the Gospel to this savage tribe (known today as “Waorani”), who routinely killed any outsiders they encountered. The five prepared to make contact with the tribe for months, even learning Waorani phrases from a tribe member who had escaped years earlier. Nate Saint flew a small, single-engine plane in circles over the tribe’s territory every Saturday for 12 weeks, trailing a long line behind the plane to which he attached gifts; the Indians reciprocated, tying gifts of their own onto the line.
On Jan. 3, the group landed on a sandbar in the Curaray River, where the men set up camp. On Jan. 6, three Waorani came out of the jungle, and there was a friendly exchange for several hours. But two days later, several Waorani warriors burst out of the jungle and killed the five with spears and machetes. Though the missionaries had guns, they shot their weapons into the air rather than defend themselves, an action they had decided upon beforehand and one later confirmed by their attackers.
The news was excruciating for the five widows, but it was not the end of the story. They all shared their husbands’ vision, and three stayed in Ecuador after the deaths, working with other tribes and waiting for the opportunity to make another contact with the Waorani. Less than two years after the massacre, in November 1957, two Waorani women—who had opposed the killings—walked to a settlement of Quechua Indians, in an attempt to escape their own tribe and find the white men. There they encountered Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of Jim Elliot. Within a year, the Waorani women invited Elisabeth, her daughter Valerie and Rachel Saint, sister of Nate Saint, to come back to the tribe with them. The missionaries accepted.
The women learned the Waorani language, eventually translating portions of the New Testament for the tribe; “God’s carvings,” the Indians called them. The women also taught the natives rudimentary medicine. Elisabeth and Valerie lived with the tribe for four years, but Rachel remained until her death in 1994.
The ministry of these women resulted in a remarkable change. In this 250-person tribe, characterized by some anthropologists as the most violent ever encountered (the homicide rate even within the tribe was more than 60%), the killings stopped. Today, there are about 2,000 Waorani and a third of them are Christian.
Over the years, Steve Saint visited his Aunt Rachel many times, and he was “adopted” by the Waorani as one of their own. As a teenager, he was baptized in the river by two of the men who had speared his father; he calls one member of the tribe, Mincaye (who is still alive today), his second father. After Rachel’s death, the tribe asked Steve to come live with them to continue her work. It was a radical request, but Steve and his family soon headed to Ecuador. They built a house hewn from trees in the jungle, and helped the tribe procure medicine and taught them the skills they needed to interact with outsiders.
My own interest in this story is deeply personal—Elisabeth Elliot is my aunt (my father’s sister), Valerie is my cousin and Jim Elliot was my father’s best friend. I often think about the sacrifices the five missionaries and their families made.
The explanation for the behavior of these men and women is not easily apprehended in our time. All these principals had a worldview that transcended the material world: In college, Jim Elliot wrote in his journal that “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” The religious faith of these men also demanded from them an almost unimaginable empathy. Nate Saint explained in his diary: “Would that we could comprehend the lot of these stone-age people who live in mortal fear of ambush on the jungle trail . . . those to whom the bark of a gun means sudden, mysterious death . . . those who think all men in all the world are killers like themselves. If God would grant us the vision, the word sacrifice would disappear from our lips and thoughts.”
The Waorani today are thankful that Elisabeth and Rachel came to them, in spite of everything. Mincaye says: “My ancestors didn’t know God’s carvings. How could they walk God’s trail if they didn’t see God’s carvings?”
For years after the initial massacre, the Waorani marveled at the fact that the victims did not use their guns to fend off the attack. Why was this so? Because, as their diaries show, the five men believed that they were ready to meet their maker while the Waorani were not. Such tales of selfless love are rare today, and worthy of celebration. Why not Hollywood?
Mr. Howard is the dean of the Center for Biblical and Theological Foundations at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn.
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