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From killers to Christians: fifty years ago, five missionaries dated to bring the Gospel to Ecuador's fearsome Auca Indians and helped work a miracle.

Marj Saint had camped out at the shortwave radio for hours, her body coiled in anxiety as she awaited word from her missionary husband Nate. Five days earlier, a yellow Piper Cruiser airplane piloted by Nate and carrying four missionary companions--Ed McCulley, Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian--had departed the tiny village of Shell Mera, Ecuador, to visit the territory of the feared Auca Indians near the Curaray River.

At long last, Nate's voice broke the unbearable silence. Nate excitedly informed his wife that a delegation from the Auca village was expected to arrive shortly. "Looks like they'll be here for the early afternoon service." he told Marj. "Pray for us. This is the day! We'll contact you next at four-thirty."

That joyful message was received on January 8, 1956. Neither Nate nor his companions were ever heard from again.

Before they had attempted to proselytize the Aucas, Nate and his fellow missionary Jim Elliot had overflown the Auca village, which Nate had discovered accidentally three years earlier, for several weeks. Using an aerial delivery method of his own invention he called the "spiraling line technique," Nate flew tight circles above the village while a line was reeled down from the aircraft; at the end of the line was a basket containing various gifts. As the gifts were delivered, Jim used a PA system to recite a greeting he had learned from an Auca woman who lived on a nearby hacienda: "Biti miti punimupa"--"I like you."

After several trips to deliver presents to the Indians, the missionaries were delighted when the Aucas decided to reciprocate by sending a collection of gifts--including what was described as "one parrot, alive but a bit nervous"--in the basket. This amicable gesture encouraged the missionaries to plan a face-to-face meeting with the Aucas, even though they knew that such a meeting might cost them their lives.

"Well, if that's the way God wants it to be, I'm ready to die for the salvation of the Aucas," Jim Elliot told his wife Elisabeth when she pointed out the mortal risks shortly before his departure. Jim and his compatriots in "Operation Auca" knew that their role was to act as messengers of salvation, whatever the risks they incurred.

These facts weighed on the mind of Marj Saint and the other missionary wives as the hours piled up with no further communication from their husbands. Mission authorities contacted Ecuadoran and U.S. military officials, who organized a search and rescue party. The news of the missing missionaries was relayed to the United States via shortwave radio, whence it radiated across wire services and was broadcast via the infant medium called television.

The day after contact was lost with the missionaries, a jungle pilot spotted the exposed fuselage of the Piper Cruiser, which had been denuded of its yellow fabric. A ground party arrived several days later to confirm the families' worst fears: all five missionaries had been slaughtered, repeatedly impaled by nine-foot, needle-pointed Auca spears.

The loss of five remarkable young men--all of them married with children, ranging in age from the mid-20s to early 30s--is a tragedy by any reckoning. But the story of the "Auca Martyrs," which didn't end in January 1956, is not a tragedy; it is a saga of repentance, forgiveness, redemption, and fellowship.

Natural Born Killers

Perhaps more than any other human grouping, the Indian tribe known to its neighbors as the Aucas (the word means "naked savage") exemplifies raw humanity in its unredeemed state.

For centuries, contact between the Aucas and Europeans had been rare, fleeting, and invariably violent. Gonzalo Pizzaro, whose more famous brother Francisco conquered the Inca Empire, is believed to have fought a series of skirmishes with the Auca around 1541. Subsequent missionary expeditions by Jesuits proved fruitless, and fatal, for the missionaries.

The 19th century brought rubber hunters to the Amazon basin. "Unscrupulous, treacherous, cruel, the rubber hunters wooed the Indians with presents only to raid their villages, plunder whatever of value they might find, carry off the able-bodied young men as slaves to work on the haciendas, and murder the rest so that there would be no one left to drum up reprisals," recounts Elisabeth Elliot. The unmitigated greed and selfishness displayed by the rubber hunters helped catalyze the worst elements of the Auca culture, and "from that time on, hatred spread through the Auca country, and a legacy of reprisal has been passed on from lather to son."

From the time a male Auca child could stand erect, he was taught to kill. The weapon of choice for the mature Auca was the fearsome nine-foot hardwood spear. Children were trained in the killing arts by thrusting shorter spears into human-shaped balsawood targets. Like many primitive societies, the Aucas were bound together by a pervasive fear of outsiders, whom they would kill without provocation. To an extent all but unparalleled in the annals of anthropology, they also preyed on their own.

"Murder was the most significant cause of death among the Aucas," notes John W. Cowart in his book Strangers on the Earth. "Seventy-four percent of all Auca men died through violent tribal warfare.... The Aucas killed for sport, lust, jealousy, or out of simple irritation. One Indian speared both his friend's wife and mother to death as a joke."

The preeminent figure among the Aucas was the tempo, the most proficient killer. His life expectancy was about 30 years. This wasn't because of the rigors of living in the Amazon basin, or its abundant natural hazards. The Aucas had been hardened by their environment into a formidably athletic people who could shimmy up slender trees or run for hours.

But the complete absence of a moral law, with its attendant institutions to resolve conflicts and vindicate individual rights, had made the Aucas into their own worst enemy. Their reputation as killers intimidated even the neighboring Jivaro tribe, a fierce band of headhunters whose children were required to recite a list of enemies each night as they went to sleep.

By the time the five missionaries of "Operation Auca" made contact in January 1956, the tribe was perhaps one or two generations from extinction.

Cream of the Cream

Each of the five young men who felt a calling to take the Gospel to the Aucas exemplified the ideas embedded in our nation's Christian heritage. Pete Fleming, Jim Elliot, and Ed McCulley were graduates of Wheaton College in Illinois. Jim was an outstanding wrestler, who went out for the sport "solely for the strength and coordination of muscle tone that the body receives while working out, with the ultimate end that of presenting a more useful body as a living sacrifice."

Ed was the starting tight end on Wheaton's championship football team, and was even more successful in track competition. He was elected senior class president and won the 1949 National Hearst Oratorical Contest in San Francisco. Although he briefly considered a career in law, the handsome and charismatic young man found himself called irresistibly into missionary service.

Roger Youderian and Nate Saint both overcame childhood diseases--polio, in Roger's case; osteomyletis, in Nate's--to serve honorably in the military during World War II. Roger left college after his freshman year to become a paratrooper, and was decorated for his service in the Battle of the Bulge. Nate's childhood illness kept him out of active duty, but he served in the Army Air Corps as a mechanic after being bitten by the flying bug as a very young man.

Lethal Caprice, Redeeming Love

When the rescue party came upon the empty mortal remains of these remarkable men, they also discovered detailed notes describing an amicable first encounter with several Aucas--an adult male they referred to as "George," an adolescent girl they tagged "Delilah," and a dour older woman who was apparently a chaperone of some sort. Halting conversations, conducted primarily in sign language, took place. George was taken for a ride in the airplane, a situation that left him enchanted but not overawed. There was no sign that the encounter could possibly lead to violence.

Much later, it was learned that the sudden eruption of murderous hostility that claimed the missionaries' lives had almost nothing to do with them. As is explained in the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor, when "George" and "'Delilah" returned to the Auca village without their escort, another young man who fancied himself the young girl's suitor demanded an explanation. Desperate to avert the man's murderous fury, "George" insisted that the couple had returned in a hurry because they discovered that the foreigners were cannibals, and intended to kill them. He thus deftly redirected the wrath at the first convenient target, thereby sealing the mortal fate of the missionaries.

After the deed was done, the Aucas retreated into their village to await what their traditions told them would be the inevitable murderous reprisal. To their astonishment, it never came. Two years later, Elisabeth Elliot and her daughter, who remained in Ecuador to work with the peaceful Quechuca Indians, expanded their outreach to the Aucas. They were joined by other family members of the slain missionaries, including Marj Saint, Rachel Saint (Nate's sister), and Nate's children, Kathy, Steve, and Phil.

Displaying the unfathomable mercy that can only be a gift of God's grace, the Elliots and Saints took up residence with the Indians who had killed their fathers and husbands. They learned, for the first time, what the tribe actually called itself--the Waodani, or "true people"--and taught them the truth as contained in "God's carvings," the Bible.

Steve Saint, who began living with the Waodani at age nine, was taken under the wing of a powerful man named Mincaye, who taught the youngster hunting with a spear and blowgun. At the same time, Steve's aunt, Rachel, or "Star" as the Indians called her, was teaching Mincaye the Gospel. At some point Steve learned that Mincaye, whom he had come to regard as an uncle, was the man who had murdered his father. Yet today, Mincaye and Steve Saint tour the world as fellow evangelists.

The Christian Gospel proved to be the physical salvation of the Waodani, as well. "From a dwindling 600 members in 1958, the tribe has grown to 2,000," reported the Green Bay Post-Gazette, citing University of Connecticut anthropologist James Boster.

This astonishing story has been artfully and earnestly told in the new film End of the Spear, which has earned sneering disdain from the same sages who wore out their thesauri in search of plaudits to heap on Brokeback Mountain. In the contemptuous attitude of these critics--along with the ever-mounting abortion toll, and our cultural enthusiasm for aggressive warfare--is found compelling evidence that the barbarism of our culture of death is competitive with that of the Auca/Waodanis and desperately in need of the same divine remedy.
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Title Annotation:CULTURE WAR
Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 20, 2006
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