Redemption in the jungle of Ecuador
By Richard N. Ostling
By Richard N. Ostling
NEW YORK — Far from home, five American missionaries died in brutal fashion: speared and hacked to death by tribesman in the dense jungles of Ecuador.
That nightmare moment 50 years ago this month evolved into a remarkable example of reconciliation, and one of the most influential incidents in 20th century Protestant mission lore.
Now the saga is being retold in "End of the Spear," a moving feature film about redemption in the jungle with a bigger budget ($17 million) and broader release (in 1,200 commercial cinemas this weekend, including six screens at five multiplexes on O'ahu) than many films of this genre.
In January 1956, Bush pilot Nate Saint and American colleagues Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully and Roger Youderian had teamed up in a high-risk attempt to contact, befriend and evangelize the violent Waodani people (also called Waorani or Auca). The five carried guns but didn't defend themselves when attacked.
Their martyrdom became world-famous through a Life magazine feature by photojournalist Cornell Capa and subsequent books by Elliot's widow, Elisabeth, who quickly matched her husband's heroism.
She and Saint's sister, Rachel, somehow managed to settle peacefully among the Waodani and brought them Christianity. Their example of responding to bloodshed with love inspired rapid conversions that are credited with ending internal warfare among the Waodani and ensuring the tribe's survival. It also inspired generations of people to follow the call to become missionaries.
In another improbable sequel, one of the killers, Mincaye, became a virtual substitute father to Nate's son, Steve Saint. The two friends are touring U.S. churches to tell their story and promote the movie along with Saint's new book of the same title.
In an interview (with Saint as interpreter), Mincaye, now in his late 70s, said his band killed the missionaries because "furious" elders felt, "Let's not let the foreigners come to our place."
The elders accused the missionaries of trying to kill tribesmen. "We knew it was a lie," Mincaye said, but the group decided, "Let's not kill each other; let's kill the foreigners."
Mincaye said his heart "was dark" until he learned about Jesus.
"Waengongi (the Creator) used his son's blood like soap. He cleaned it and I saw a new trail. Then I saw it's enough," he said, referring to tribal killings. The violence had to stop. "Waengongi said, 'Come follow my trail, living well.' "
Besides slaying outsiders, the Waodani killed each other at the highest rate of any known group, University of Connecticut anthropology professor James Boster said. Before the missionaries came, they had dwindled to 600 and "were at the brink of cultural extinction," because such a small group can't sustain itself as a social unit, he said.
In a 2003 academic paper, Boster said the Waodani were desperate to halt the cycles of violence and had tried gift-giving, exchange of wives, fleeing and attempts to exterminate all enemies. Before Christianity, nothing worked.
Less hostile toward missions than are some anthropologists — who see evangelization as cultural imperialism — Boster said that "of all the ways in which native people confront the larger society, often the most benevolent and caring face of the other culture is by missionaries."
Catherine Peeke lived among the Waodani from 1960 to 1992 for Wycliffe Bible Translators, preparing a New Testament (they call it "God's markings") in their tongue. She said the population rebounded not only through ending warfare but because missions provided basic medical care and school compounds where men were able to find wives.
Also, Peeke said, Christian teaching caused the tribe to stop infanticide of children who were twins, born out of wedlock, had deformities or were sacrificed after their fathers were killed.
Steve Saint got involved after his aunt Rachel died in 1994. When he attended her burial in Ecuador, the Waodani insisted that he leave his business career and take his aunt's place as their helper in dealing with the outside world. Saint now divides his time between the jungle and Dunnellon, Fla., where his nonprofit Indigenous People's Technology and Education Center (I-TEC) invents aids for jungle living and provides tribal employment.
Saint said he initially declined to assist the "Spear" movie because the Waodani Christians said they opposed the project. But the Waodani changed their minds when he told them about the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. They wanted to help Americans overcome violence like they had, Saint said.
The film depicts events from the Waodani viewpoint, using a largely indigenous cast in Panama. Saint was the stunt pilot, duplicating his father's exploits. The team produced a related video documentary, "Beyond the Gates of Splendor."
Today, Steve Saint estimates, 430 of the 2,000 Waodani are baptized Christians but he worries whether the tribe can maintain its identity.
"Their existence as a church and a culture is very tenuous," he said, due to encroachments from the outside world.
One further result from the saga: David Howard, former director of the World Evangelical Alliance and Elisabeth Elliot's brother, said he's been told that missionary recruits in the United States and dozens of other nations were inspired by the martyrdom. "Only eternity is going to show how many," he said, but it's "easily in the thousands" and vocations still occur.
"This story goes on and on," he said.
Associated Press writer Adrian Sainz in Miami contributed to this report.