Published January 19, 2006
In the movie End of the Spear, 8-year-old Steve Saint watches as his missionary pilot father, Nate Saint, builds a miniature yellow airplane such as the one Nate flew into the jungles of the Amazon.
Nate promised his son he would teach him how to fly and repair planes like that one day.
“I wanted to grow up and be like him,” Steve Saint, 54, said during a preview of the movie in Grand Rapids, Mich. “That was what the future held for me.”
But what the future really held for the boy was sorrow.
His father and four other missionaries were killed in 1956 by Ecuadorian tribesmen, a historic tragedy powerfully told in the movie to open in theatres across the nation Jan. 20.
When his mother told him of his father’s death, Saint recalled, “I couldn’t imagine there was any reason to go on living.”
It turns out there was. Some would call it a miracle.
Steve went on to grow up among the Waodani tribesmen that had killed the five missionaries. He befriended one of the tribesmen who speared his father. And 50 years after the killings, Steve Saint honored his father’s promise by serving as a stunt pilot in the film.
That remarkable reconciliation, and the Waodani’s abandonment of a violent lifestyle, were results of God’s grace, Saint said.
The legendary story of the five slain missionaries – Saint, Ed McCully, Jim Elliot, Peter Fleming and Roger Youderian – will open in theaters 50 years after the Jan. 8, 1956, killings.
It was directed by Jim Hanon, founder of the Compass Arts Christian media firm. It is co-produced by Mart Green, a former businessman who founded the Every Tribe Entertainment film company after being inspired by a Steve Saint speech to make the movie.
Telling a wider audience
Producers hope the $30 million production will expose a wider audience to an incident long famous in the annals of missionary history. Their recently released documentary, Beyond the Gates of Splendor, tells the same story without fictional embellishment.
The five young men and their families were working with other tribes when they located the Waodani. Determined to bring the Gospel to the reclusive and violent tribe, the men made contact with disastrous consequences. They were slain on a beach by tribesmen, sparking headlines and a military search that found their bodies downriver.
With their deadly spears and loin cloths, the Waodani reinforced Western stereotypes of primitive peoples. But End of the Spear tells the story largely from the Waodani perspective, shedding light on their fear of outsiders.
Hidden from modern civilization in the Amazon rain forest, the Waodani were caught in a generations-old culture of violence. Sixty percent of adult deaths were homicides.
Louie Leonardo portrays Mincayani, a composite tribal character. The young Guatemalan actor said he empathizes with indigenous peoples threatened by outside forces. The Waodani, he notes, faced threats from Shell Oil exploration.
The film shows how faith and kindness changed a kill-or-be-killed culture, Leonardo said.
However noble their sacrifice, the men’s mission was fundamentally flawed, said Ruth Tucker, a professor of missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids and author of From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biography History of Christian Missions.
In their zeal to be first to contact the Waodani, the missionaries did not inform their superiors, Tucker said. She contends they also did not sufficiently comprehend a culture that understandably was hostile to outsiders.
“It breaks every rule of good, solid method,” Tucker said of the mission. “To me, it would have been surprising if they had not been killed.”
She concedes the mission did the Waodani some good in the long run but added, “It might have had a much greater benefit had it been done the right way.”
Although it was the missionaries’ deaths that made headlines, End of the Spear tells the inspiring story of what happened as a result.
Elliot’s widow, Elisabeth Elliot, who wrote a book on the incident, and Saint’s sister, Rachel Saint, went to live with the Waodani along with an adopted Waodani girl. They won over suspicious tribes people by treating children for polio and other diseases.
The missionaries taught them the Creator did not want them to spear, and that his son had died by the spear but had not speared back.
Within a few years, the tribe’s homicide rate dropped by 90 percent. About 20 percent became Christians.
Hanon, the director, said the Waodani learned faith through the missionaries’ actions, not their words. The warm friendship between Steve and one of the men who killed his father suggests other forces at work, he says.
“That can’t happen just out of the goodwill of people’s hearts,” said Hanon, now of Oklahoma City. “Something else has to help that kind of change. I believe that’s God.”
In addition, Steve Saint has toured U.S. cities with Mincaye, one of the Waodani who killed his father.
Unlike in the film, Steve was 5 when his father was killed. His last memory is of seeing his father’s yellow plane fly into the distance.
After the killing, he lived with his mother, Marj, in the capital of Quito. But he spent summers and holidays with his Aunt Rachel living with the Waodani.
Mincaye became a father-figure to him, teaching him how to make fire with sticks, shoot a blowgun and other jungle skills.
According to Steve Saint, Mincaye once told his aunt, “‘Having killed his father, I will now teach him to live.’”
Saint says it never occurred to him to be bitter about his father’s death because his mother wasn’t.
“By the time I went in to live with them, I already knew these people were very special to us,” said Saint, who now lives in Ocala, Fla.
In 1994, when Saint returned to Ecuador to help bury his Aunt Rachel, the Waodani insisted he and his family stay there to teach them the ways of modern life.
He obliged. Living in a rustic shack with his wife and children, Saint taught the Waodani dental and medical techniques, how to run a trading post and how to fly.
Later, he set up the Indigenous Peoples Technology and Education Center, a Florida-based concern that provides tools and training to native people.
Charles Honey writes about religion for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich.
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