What would you give to a primitive stone-age tribe – nicknamed Aucas (‘naked savages’) by their Quechua neighbours – to win access to them for the gospel? On 6 October 1955, Nate Saint lowered from his plane a small aluminium kettle with coloured streamers attached, containing brightly-coloured buttons and a bag of rock salt. It had the desired effect on the Huaoranis.
Over the course of 13 such drops, return gifts began to be placed in the bucket – a feathered headband, food, a live parrot. Yet 94 days after that first drop, on 8 January 1956 (at 3.12pm according to Nate’s smashed wristwatch) he and his four companions lay dead in the Curaray River, pierced by Huaorani spears.
Gaining what he could not lose
I say dead; but really they lived on in the immediate presence of the Lord whom they loved more than life. The five men were very different but they shared one overwhelming obsession – to see Jesus Christ glorified in the lives of men and women. Accordingly, they readily gave everything to take his message of salvation to those who had never heard his name.
Jim Elliot was still a student when he penned the words, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’. Aged 20 he wrote, ‘I only hope that he will let me preach to those who have never heard the name of Jesus. What else is worthwhile in this life? I have heard of nothing better’.
In 1950 he wrote, ‘Lord, send me! I dare not stay home while Quichuas perish’. And so he set sail in 1952 with Pete Fleming, bound for Ecuador.
Pete Fleming, an MA in English Literature, was expected to become a college professor. Many were incredulous at his decision to go to Ecuador and ‘throw away’ his life to help ‘ignorant savages’.
Some verses which he quoted in correspondence show the turn his mind and heart were taking: ‘He that loveth father and mother more than me is not worthy of me … He that taketh not up his cross and followeth after me is not worthy of me … He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for My sake shall find it’. Moved by the stringency of Christ’s words, he accompanied Jim Elliot to Ecuador.
Ed McCully arrived in Ecuador in 1952. As a law student, he was challenged by the story of Nehemiah. ‘Here was a man who left everything as far as position was concerned to go do a job nobody else could handle. And because he went, the whole remnant back in Jerusalem got right with the Lord’.
As a result, he wrote to his friend Jim Elliot, ‘I have one desire now – to live a life of reckless abandon to the Lord, putting all my energy and strength into it. Maybe he’ll send me someplace where the name of Jesus Christ is unknown’.
Nate Saint was the pilot on that final expedition to the Huaoranis. Before his arrival, missionaries in Ecuador were isolated. Any emergency necessitated many days’ trek through the jungle.
Nate’s plane could reduce this to a couple of hours. He was able to airlift medicines and supplies which could never have been carried through the jungle, and evacuate medical emergencies for treatment.
Nate’s intended career as a military pilot was ended by ill health. He surrendered his ambition to God, and was delighted when God gave it back to him by calling him to fly for Missionary Aviation Fellowship.
His consuming passion was to bring the light of the gospel to people who had never heard the name of Jesus – who lived in violence and torment and died in terror.
Roger Youderian had overcome childhood polio and had served as assistant to an army chaplain during the Second World War. During this time, he became convinced that his future lay in full-time Christian service. In 1953 he set out for Ecuador.
Cloaked in secrecy
All five longed to make contact with the feared Huaoranis – many encounters with whom had ended in death. They had a 100% homicide rate towards outsiders and 60% among themselves. These were not happy savages living a life of blissful ignorance. They were a terrified people who lived in fear and died in hopelessness and despair.
The initial tentative contacts with these people were cloaked in secrecy. The five took only their wives into their confidence, fearful of interference from other parties such as oil companies.
They lowered gifts in a bucket, and soon the sound of the plane brought Huaoranis running from their houses to receive the next gift, and attach their return gift. The missionaries leaned out of the doorway of the plane and shouted phrases in the Huaorani language.
‘I like you! I want to be your friend! I want to approach you!’ These phrases they had learnt from a woman named Dayuma, the only person at that time to have left the Huaorani villages.
On 3 January 1956 a landing was made on a strip of riverside beach, four miles from the Huaorani village. Materials were unloaded to construct a tree house. On 5 January, as the plane flew in, Nate spotted footprints on the beach.
The five men spent the night in the tree house. The next morning a young man and two women from the Huaorani village came out into the open, and the five missionaries shouted the Huaorani for welcome. Gifts were given; the young man had a flight in the plane over his village.
On 8 January a flight over the area revealed a delegation of men on their way to the beach. Nate radioed the news to his wife, and told her he would make contact at 4.30pm.
That contact never came. A frantic search was launched, involving the US Air Force and the Ecuadorian military. One by one, sightings of the bodies in the river were reported back to the waiting wives. Finally it became clear that none of the five had survived.
Barbara Youderian responded, ‘The Lord has closed our hearts to grief and hysteria and filled in with his perfect peace’. As evidence of this, the five widows and eight fatherless children (plus one unborn) gathered together to worship the Lord – with the words of the hymn their husbands had sung before their final departure:
We rest on thee, our Shield and our Defender,
Thine is the battle, thine shall be the praise;
When, passing through the gates of pearly splendour,
Victors, we rest with thee through endless days.
This is not a story of courageous men only, but of parents who surrendered their sons to the Lord, wives their husbands, and children their fathers.
Within two years, Dayuma had returned to her village – taking Nate’s sister Rachel and Jim’s widow Elizabeth (with her infant daughter Valerie) to live among the Huaorani people. Rachel Saint made her home among them for 37 years until her death in 1994.
Humanly, it was a tragic waste of promising young lives. But the Huaorani had known nothing in their history except killing and being killed. Their understanding of death was that one had to jump over the great Boa or fall back to earth as a termite – so the power gained from killing and brutality would strengthen them to meet this final challenge.
How could they possibly take in the story of a loving creator God, rejected and spurned by his people, who responded by sending his Son with a message of love and salvation? A God who, when his Son was mercilessly killed, responded with mercy and forgiveness, and triumphed over death?
Maybe they would never have grasped this truth – if they had not seen a living parable in the lives of these martyrs and the gentle women who lived among them bringing love and forgiveness.
Eyewitness accounts later revealed that the missionaries had fired into the air to try to scare their attackers, but they had refused to do what they could so easily have done – saved themselves by shooting the spearmen.
Make me thy fuel
This puzzled the Huaorani men, and was a major factor in them allowing Rachel Saint and Betty Elliot to go and live among them. All the Huaoranis present reported seeing and hearing an angel choir above the trees where the men lay dying. One Huaorani woman later said that it was this angelic visitation which made her ready to respond when she first heard the gospel.
Ten years later, Nate Saint’s teenage son and daughter stood in the river where their father had died and were baptised by two of his killers, now born-again believers. Today the Huaoranis are estimated to number around 2,000. A quarter of them are Christians, including seven of the nine killers.
Living our comfortable twenty-first century existence, in a ‘me’ generation, may we all be challenged by the 20-year-old Jim Elliot’s words:
‘Saturate me with the oil of God that I may be a flame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this, my soul – short life? In me there dwells the Spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God’s house consumed him. Make me thy fuel, flame of God’.