Friday, January 08, 2016

The Martyrs of Ecuador

It was sixty years ago today, on January 8, 1956, that Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Nate Saint entered into glory. They were killed while attempting to reach the Waodani tribe of Ecuador with the gospel. Amazingly and powerfully, their wives stayed on in the wake of their deaths and continued to share the gospel, which transformed the tribe.

In honor of their legacies today, I thought I would repost my review of Steve Saint's book End of the Spear. I originally posted this on back in 2007. Steve was the son of the martyred Nate Saint, and his own dealings with the Waodoni were wondrous. So thankful for all the amazing ways Jesus works in our world.


 "Bringing your family, we say come and live here." In 1994, these were words spoken bluntly to Steve Saint, a North American businessman, by Dawa, a member of the Waodani tribe in the Amazon jungle. What had brought these people together? Why would she suggest to him that he and his family should relocate to the Amazon and live with her family?

Steve Saint wasn't your typical North American businessman. This was not his first time in the Amazon jungle. Far from it. He had, in fact, grown up in Ecuador. His parents, Nate and Marj Saint, were missionaries there in the 1950s. His father Nate was a first-rate pilot who flew for Missionary Aviation Fellowship. When Steve was only five years old, his father Nate and four other missionaries, while attempting to establish friendly contact with a violent, stone-age tribe, were brutally speared by members of that tribe. That tribe was the Waodani, the same tribe now asking Steve, not quite forty years later, to come and live with them. How could this be?

End of the Spear is Steve Saint's moving memoir of his relationship with the Waodani tribe, a group of little known, often misunderstood, and powerfully transformed people. What makes this memoir such a fascinating and riveting read is that the main part of the narrative, the Waodanis' invitation to Steve and his family and their subsequent move to the Amazon, is just one piece of a much larger and complex story, parts of it going back many years. By the time Dawa asked Steve this question, much had happened in both the hearts of the Waodani and the heart of Steve Saint.

The Transforming Love of God in a Violent Culture

The Waodani, once referred to by the denigrating name of "Aucas" (a term that surrounding tribes and other Ecuadorans used to denote their savagery) had almost killed themselves into extinction by the 1950s. Living deep in the jungle, their only communal rules had to do with vengeance and retribution. Tribal vendettas and ancient customs (such as burying one's live children with you if you were speared by another warrior) had claimed the lives of so many of their people that they numbered only in the hundreds. The tribe was also running into trouble with greedy Western oil companies in the 1950s, who wanted their lands. Nate Saint and his four missionary companions felt a sense of urgency to reach the "Aucas" with the good news of the gospel, realizing that time quite literally was running out for this tribe.

Their seeming failure (the brutal murder of all five men on a jungle river bank in 1956) might have been the end of the story. But God was not through moving in the lives of the tribe or the lives of the missionary families of the slain men. As Saint makes clear as he weaves his beautiful narrative, which is part theological reflection as well as memoir, the most painful moments of the story can now be seen in retrospect as part of an unfolding plan, far more beautiful and amazing than anyone might have guessed on that tragic day in his boyhood.

One Waodani woman named Dayumae, who had left the tribe and gone to live in the city of Quito, met Rachel Saint, Steve's Aunt (the older sister of his slain father Nate). She became a Christian, or as the Waodani would later term it, she "began to follow God's trail." Dayumae and Rachel became spiritual sisters, and Dayumae began to help Rachel learn the Waodanis' language. Since theirs was a completely oral culture, Rachel not only had to learn the sounds but find some way of transcribing them and turning them into writing. Once she had a Waodani alphabet, she could begin to work on translating the Scriptures, or "God's markings" into their language. In fact, Rachel dedicated her entire life to this task and became much beloved of the Waodani.

That's because Dayumae, following the massacre of the missionaries, helped bridge the chasm between the missionary families and her former tribe. Some of the widows of the slain men actually took their children and went into the jungle with Rachel and Dayumae, determined to continue the work their husbands had died doing. God used these courageous women to reach out to the Waodani with love and tender forgiveness. To a culture that believed in vengeance, it was unthinkable that a family whose members you had speared would not come after you with spears of their own. Instead, the women and children came vulnerably, wanting to live with them and befriend them. No wonder "God's markings," the story of the Bible, came stunningly to life for the Waodani! They saw its message embodied and lived right in front of their very eyes.

All of this is back story, prelude to the main story that Steve Saint sets out to tell. But he weaves it skillfully into the narrative. He himself was one of the children who went to live with the Waodani. He spent most of his boyhood and early adolescence with the tribe. Many of the Waodani (their name for themselves) embraced the gospel and became God followers. The result was an amazing turnaround in the lives and culture. Steve was adopted as one of them, learning to hunt and fish and survive in the jungle. As a young teenager, he and his sister were actually baptized in the same river where their father had been killed. Some of the warriors who helped to baptize them, who had become their elder brothers and fathers in the faith, had actually been amongst the spearing party that day.

Saint eventually moved back to the United States for college. He discovered the difficulty of learning to bridge cultures and how ill at ease he felt in his "own" culture. But he adjusted. Eventually he got married, started a family, and became a successful businessman with dealings in Ecuador. But he never forgot the Waodani and they never forgot him. When he went back in 1994 to bury his Aunt Rachel (who had lived with them her whole life) their expectation was that he would naturally want to continue the deep ties between the tribe and the Saint family. Of course he and his wife and children would come to live with them.

"Now I See It Well..."

End of the Spear is the story of how they did just that. It's an amazing story for the testimony it provides to God's faithfulness and leading in people's lives. It's also a humble story, the story of a man who didn't always see his own role clearly in the greater plan that he sensed was being woven by the God he loved. Part of the wonder of following along in Saint's journey is seeing how he finally realizes how his skills can benefit the Waodani in a precarious season of their tribal life. For by the 1990s, the Waodani could no longer avoid contemporary culture, which had begun to penetrate their own culture more and more.

Although their numbers had increased dramatically, they were now in danger of becoming dependent on "outside" culture and losing their own indigenous identity and skills. Steve Saint began to realize that he was uniquely placed, because of his own abilities to walk within both cultures and because of the deep spiritual bond between them, to help the Waodani learn to master skills they would need to survive and flourish. He didn't want to go in and give them "things." As they had once taught him how to navigate in a new world, he now wanted to help teach them to navigate in a new world. He would help them to learn to do things for themselves (flying a plane, running a store and pharmacy, becoming health promoters) so they could have a viable economy and maintain their own identity and dignity as they learned to care for themselves and their people. He knew that although they could not read or write, they were intelligently and highly skilled within their own environment. Much of the narrative explains how he began to explore technologies and ideas that would work in the jungle and would be things he and others could teach the Waodani to do.

End of the Spear is a book that can be read on so many levels. It's a theological reflection, one that looks long and hard at the violence at the heart of all of us, and one that delves deep into the providence and sovereignty of a loving God. It's a tribute to the lives of Saint's missionary family, and a tribute to the ancient and yet still emerging and changing culture of the Waodani. It's a love song to God's love and power. It's a reflection on cross-cultural relationships, taking a humorous look at the mistakes and misunderstandings that can happen when people of disparate cultures try to work together. It's a testament to deep friendships, especially the friendship of Steve with Mincaye, an elder of the tribe and a devout God follower, and the one who actually killed Steve's father. It's an adventure story about what it's like to live in the Amazon (eating monkeys and avoiding snakes).

Taken all together, it's a riveting story, told simply and well by a man who lived it...and is still living it today. It's seldom that one book makes me laugh, cry, and think as much as this one did. I highly recommend it.

End of the Spear
by Steve Saint
SaltRiver, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, 2005
ISBN 0842364390

Note: "End of the Spear" was made into a feature film in 2006, following a documentary "Beyond the Gates of Splendor" made in 2005. Both are good, but understandably much more narrow in focus than the book, telling only snippets of the overall story. I'd almost recommend seeing the feature film first as it provides visuals of the jungle and gives one some clues as to the pronunciation of Waodani names.

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