Missionaries risked their lives to share Christ

Published 7:30 am Sunday, January 9, 2022

Sixty-six years ago this week, the sudden death of five American missionaries in the jungles of Ecuador made headlines around the world. The missionaries had risked their lives to share Christ with the Waodani Indians, known as one of the most remote and violent tribes of people.

Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) pilots Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian made their first contact by dropping gifts from their plane. The men hoped to show their mission was a peaceful one. On that fateful day in 1956, their jungle plane landed near a sandbar on the Ewenguno River. Ten tribesmen with spears and machetes killed the five missionaries.

Life Magazine published the story of their martyrdom. Elizabeth Elliot later wrote a book, Through Gates of Splendor, about her slain husband and her experience. A movie, entitled End of the Spear, released to theaters in January 2006, depicted the missionaries’ story.

Their deaths, though tragic, were not in vain. The tribe, with a 60% homicide rate due mostly to intertribal feuds, was close to extinction. Now sixty-two years later, anthropologists have found that the older generation has lived long enough to be grandparents.

Why? It’s reported that some 80 % of the Waodani have heard the Gospel message and 40% profess faith in Christ. Conversion to Christianity was instrumental in saving the tribe. This remarkable change happened after the deaths of the missionaries because their families returned to the jungle to carry on the work their loved ones began.

Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel, lived with the Waodani for the next thirty years until she died of cancer in 1994. She helped translate the Bible into their language. Other widows came back to work among the tribe.

After Rachel’s death, Nate’s son, Steve took her place and moved his family to the jungles of Ecuador. Steve Saint was five-years-old when his father perished. He later spent school vacations with his aunt. Steve, a pilot like his father, was invited by the Waodani to come live with them. He helped them with their medical needs, even designing a portable dental chair to carry deep into the jungle.

Eventually, Steve came to know a Christian tribal leader named Mincaye, who told him he had taken part in the killing of his father. Instead of feeling hatred and revenge, Steve forgave Mincaye. They have traveled together in the U.S., speaking on “God’s carvings,” the Waodani term for the Bible.

Jim Elliot died at age 28, but his legacy continues to this day. He once said, “Live every day as if the Son of Man (Christ) were at the door and gear your thinking to the fleeting moment…Walk as if the next step would carry you across the threshold of Heaven. Pray. That saint who advances on his knees never retreats.”

Elizabeth Elliot published the profound words her husband had written in his journal in Ecuador, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” By daring to reach a remote tribe, Jim Elliot lived Luke 9:23. May we “take up Christ’s cross daily and follow Him.”