On Sunday, 8 January 1956, five young missionaries gave their lives in an attempt at sharing the gospel with a tribe renowned for its ferocity.
Earlier in 2017, the grandson of one of the martyrs toured the UK along with performances from 4Front Theatre. Their show, Reckless Abandon, runs throughout 2017 and tells the story of the martyrs’ deep commitment to spreading Christ’s message.
In 1955, MAF pilot Nate Saint and fellow missionaries Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian and Ed McCully first made contact with the widely feared tribe named ‘Auca’ (‘savages’) by the Quechua Indians, and referred to by Time magazine as ‘a pure stone age people … Even their neighbours, the Jivaros, famous for shrinking heads, live in constant fear of the fierce Aucas’.
The missionaries began by flying over the tribe’s remote rainforest home in Nate Saint’s plane and giving the tribe, now known as the Waodani, gifts in a bucket lowered from the aircraft as a means of showing love to them.
Eventually, having successfully exchanged gifts for some weeks, Nate decided the time had come to land. So the missionaries made camp near the tribe’s remote Ecuadorian territory and waited.
After three days, a man named Naenkiwi, a teenage girl called Gimari and her aunt Mintaka appeared on the bank opposite, eventually crossing over to the Americans’ camp. When Naenkiwi indicated that he wanted to fly in the yellow aircraft, Nate flew him over his village, Naenkiwi calling out to his friends below.
The five missionaries eventually returned to base, praising God for a meeting that was even more successful than the one they had asked for or imagined. Deciding to return two days later, Nate radioed back to base, ‘Pray for us. This is the day! We will contact you next at 4.30pm’.
Unfortunately, to save his own skin, Naenkiwi told the tribe that the five missionaries had attacked them. The believers knew nothing of this and, as soon as the excited young men stepped from the plane, three women distracted them. As they did so, Kimo, Dyuwi, Mincayani and three others leapt out, spearing the five missionaries.
Soon all five lay dead, their lives spent in the service of the Saviour for whom they lived and died. The five martyred men, ‘who did not love their lives to the death’ (Revelation 12:11), had joined countless others ‘of whom the world was not worthy’ (Hebrews 11:38).
The killers then turned their fury on the plane, slashing at it with machetes and stripping its fabric. The missionaries’ death on a remote, blood-soaked beach shocked the world. Life magazine published a 10-page article on the story, which was also covered in Reader’s Digest and many other journals.
Yet, as Genesis 50:20 reminds us, what the Waodani intended for harm, God intended for good. From the ashes of tragedy came an amazing opportunity for the gospel.
Before the missionaries’ deaths, Nate’s sister Rachel, who in the providence of God worked for Wycliffe Bible Translators, had befriended two Waodani women who had fled the forest to avoid being speared. It was through them that Rachel learnt their language and began translating the New Testament into Waodani.
In 1958, as a result of their relationship with Dayuma and Ome, the tribe invited Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot, Jim Elliot’s wife, to live with them, along with Elisabeth’s three-year-old daughter Valerie. The two ladies, mindful of the injunction in Luke 11:4 to forgive, accepted the invitation.
John 12:24 tells us that, ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain’. And so it was that a number of Waodani, many of whom had become sick of the seemingly endless cycle of revenge killing, were born again!
In God’s goodness, Rachel was later joined by Steve, Nate’s son, who was only five when his father died, and was now studying in Quito. Eventually, in the same river where the bodies of the five martyred missionaries were later discovered, Steve and his sister Kathy were baptised by Kimo, Dyuwi and Mincayani — three of the men who had murdered the missionary party.
‘We acted badly’, recalled Mincayani, the killer responsible for the death of Nate Saint and Ed McCully, ‘until they brought us God’s carvings [the Bible]. Now we live happily and in peace’.
‘I believe that only God could have fashioned such an incredible story from such a tragic event’, says Steve. Without his dad’s death, the tribe would never have adopted him, and he would not have been part of their mysterious stone age world.
In 1995, following Rachel Saint’s death from cancer, the Waodani asked Steve and his family, including son Jaime, to live in the Amazon rainforest and help them reach their own people with the gospel.
Steve agreed. Later, back in the USA, he established I-TEC (the Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center) and wrote End of the spear, the story of how his father and four others lost their lives.
Steve’s son Jaime later joined him at I-TEC and founded LIFE University, which provides the North American church with tools to assist its mission and empowers churches to provide practical help to local communities.
Today, thanks to the transformative power of the gospel, a large number of the Waodani — a people Steve describes ‘as the most special people in the world’ — are now Steve’s brothers and sisters in Christ.
He maintains that, because five men were willing to die, the rest of the tribe had a chance to live. Mincayani, the murderer of missionaries, became a missionary himself, along with many others, including his two grandsons and Naenkiwi’s son Tementa.
The originally violent, stone age people’s heart of stone has now been replaced by a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26); their lives an epistle written, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Today, ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God’, has replaced the vicious nine-foot spears, once wielded by the originally violent tribe.
The story of ‘Operation Auca’ and those who gave their lives that others might live, lives on in the lives of the Saint family and a new generation of Waodani believers.
MAF pilot Nate Saint’s vision to reach some of the world’s most isolated people with help, hope and healing continues today. MAF now flies over 135 planes in 26 countries, including Ecuador, transforming the lives of some of the world’s most isolated people.
Their story also continues, with UK performances of the show Reckless Abandon, which demonstrates how God turned tragedy into triumph, taking place throughout 2017.
If you would like to know more about Mission Aviation Fellowship UK and MAF pilot Nate Saint, please visit www.maf-uk.org or go to www.4front-theatre.com to find out about 4Front Theatre’s inspiring show, Reckless Abandon.
Gary Clayton is married to Julie and father of Christopher (12) and Emma (9). He worships at Hayes Lane Baptist Church, served for 15 years as managing editor at the Hudson Taylor mission OMF, and is currently copywriter and editor at MAF UK. To learn more about how MAF aircraft help some of the world’s most remote and isolated people, in 26 developing countries, visit www.maf-uk.org