By Gary Clayton, MAF Copywriter & Editor
On Sunday 8th January 1956, MAF Pilot Nate Saint and four American friends were speared to death in the Ecuadorian rainforest –victims of an animistic tribe renowned for its hostility to strangers.
Nate and fellow missionaries, Jim Elliot, Peter Fleming, Roger Youderian and Ed McCully, first made contact with the widely feared Auca – now known as the Waodani (or Huaorani) – in 1955.
The missionaries began by flying over the rainforest and, every week for 13 weeks, lowering gifts in a bucket, in the hope of showing love to violent and aggressive people.
As they flew over villages in the dense jungle, the missionaries shouted over the plane’s loudspeaker, “We like you. We like you. We are friends!”
Eventually, after successfully exchanging gifts and friendly messages for some weeks, Nate decided it was time to attempt a landing. So they set up camp on the borders of the Waodani’s territory, and waited.
After three days, a young man, a girl and an older woman suddenly appeared on the bank opposite them and, encouraged by Jim Elliot, joined the Americans for hamburgers and lemonade.
Naenkiwi, a young tribal man, indicated that he wanted to fly in the plane, so Nate flew him over his village – Naenkiwi calling out to his friends below. The five missionaries eventually returned to their base, praising God for a meeting that had proved even more successful than the one they’d longed and prayed for.
Returning with his friends on 8th January 1956, Nate radioed back to base: “Pray for us. This is the day! We will contact you next at 4.30pm.”
When the tribe heard the aircraft coming, they hid from view along the beach. Then, as soon as it landed, three Waodani women distracted the enthusiastic missionaries.
The fearsome warriors then crept up behind them, and hurled a spear into Nate Saint. As Ed McCully rushed over to his side, another spear pierced his skin. Within minutes it was over; all five lay dead – their lives spent in the service of the Saviour for whom they lived and died.
The world was shocked at this turn of events, and Life magazine published a ten-page photo essay on the story, which was also covered in Reader’s Digest and many other publications. Yet, from the ashes of that terrible tragedy, came amazing resurrection life.
In 1959, Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel, and Jim Elliot’s widow, Elisabeth, received an invitation to settle among the Waodani. Living among those responsible for the five missionaries’ deaths, they taught the tribe about the need for forgiveness and shared the Gospel.
They were joined by Steve Saint, Nate’s son, who had only been five years old at the time of his father’s death. Aged ten, Steve spent his first summer living with the Waodani in the jungle, where he was baptised by a Waodani pastor who’d been part of the raiding party that murdered his father. Steve’s baptism occurred in the same river where the bodies of the five martyred missionaries were found.
In 1995, following the death of Rachel Saint, the Waodani elders asked Steve to live with them. While he and his family – including son, Jaime – were there, Steve decided he wanted to find better ways of doing mission and giving indigenous Christians the tools needed to fulfil the Great Commission. This resulted in the formation of I-TEC – the Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center.
In 2005, Steve wrote ‘End of the Spear’, the story of how his father and four others died at the hands of the Waodani, and how Steve eventually came to love his father’s killers and adopt a number of them as members of his family.
In God’s providence, Steve’s son, Jaime, followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. After leaving school in 1995, Jaime moved with his family to the Amazon rainforest to help the Waodani tribe learn to do for themselves what outsiders had been doing, so that the Waodani could reach their own people with the Gospel.
Jaime subsequently joined I-TEC and began LIFE University, which seeks to provide the North American Church with tools to evaluate their mission’s strategy, and empower them in providing practical help to their communities.
Sixty years later, the story of Operation Auca and the five young men who died for their faith continues. Today, about a third of the tribe have been baptised, and meet weekly for Bible study and prayer.
From 7th to 12th March 2017, Jaime Saint is touring the UK, telling the story of his family and his grandfather’s sacrifice, alongside performances from 4Front Theatre and worship from popular singer-songwriter, Cathy Burton.
To book tickets and hear how God turned tragedy into triumph by bringing the violent Waodani to forgiveness and repentance, visit www.maf-uk.org/jaimesaint.