Article By: Nathan Parsons (Class of 2018)
Photos By: Mark Finster (Class of 2017)
On Jan. 3, 1956, five evangelical missionaries began to set up camp on Palm Beach, an isolated sandbar on the Curaray river in Ecuador. Shouting basic Waodaniphrases into the jungle, Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming and Roger Youderian were determined to bring the gospel to this unreached Ecuadorian tribe.
Around 3:00 p.m. on Jan. 8, six Waodanitribesmen emerged from the jungle, gesturing to the missionaries. By 3:30 p.m., the bodies of all five men lay strewn across the sand, brutally speared to death.
A few weeks ago, Mark Finster, Mitch Clevidence and I boarded a plane at LAX and flew to Ecuador for our TMU spring break. We planned to rent a car, drive around, shoot video for our video journalism class, eat local food and avoid suffering from altitude sickness.
We did all those things, save avoiding the altitude sickness (sorry, Mark). We experienced the predictably unpredictable mishaps that go along with three 20-somethings driving around South America, including taking the “scenic route” that left us with our car stuck in the mud. If Juan and Juan Carlos hadn’t shown up with their 4x4 to pull us out, we’d probably still be there.
Before leaving for our trip, we talked through the story of the five missionaries martyred on Palm Beach. When Life magazine published a 10-page article on their mission to reach the Waodaniand their deaths in 1956, their martyrdom quickly gripped the fascination of American evangelicalism and continues to do so today. Between reading Nate Saint’s biography four times and watching “End of the Spear”(2006) more than one should, it’s safe to say their story saturated my childhood.
With their stories in the back of our minds, we made sure to schedule a stop in Shell. Named after the British oil company, Shell served as the home base for the missionaries’ operations. Nate Saint’s (refurbished) house still stands not more than 500 yards away from the airstrip he used fly his yellow Piper Cub into the jungle.
Driving by the airstrip was meaningful; barreling down the runway in a six-seat bush plane was another thing entirely.
Thanks to the connections of some missionaries Mark knows, less than a day after arriving in Shell we found ourselves flying out to the Waodanivillage of Tiweano. As I looked down at the mountainous, jagged jungle terrain, I understood why Tiweano remains unconnected by road.
Warm Waodanitribespeople and stifling humidity met us when we landed on the grass airstrip in Tiweano. Mincayeand Mineawa—two Waodanimen who flew out with us and graciously acted as our guides—helped the pilot reposition the plane and led us to the village’s church building.
When the five missionaries died on Palm Beach, their mission did not end; it signaled the beginning. A few years later, Elizabeth Elliot (Jim’s widow) and Rachel Saint (Nate’s sister) successfully made peaceful contact with the Waodani, eventually living with them and evangelizing.
The forgiveness shown by Elizabeth and Rachel stood in sharp contrast to the revenge killings previously intrinsic to Waodaniculture and resulted in many tribespeople coming to Christ. Culturally accepted murder ceased almost immediately. Churches sprang up within the tribe, and some of the men who murdered the missionaries in 1956 became church elders.
One of these men, Dyuwi, was more than happy to speak with us.
“It gives me great joy that when I die, I will go to heaven,” said Dyuwi, now 82. “Jesus saved me and will not let me go.”
Speaking in Waodanithrough a translator, Dyuwi’s eyes lit up when asked about what continues to drive him.
“I have a great passion for this third generation of Waodani…to know Christ. I fear that when they go outside the tribe, they fall away and turn towards the temptations of the world.”
Still in a subtle state of shock after having the opportunity to talk to Dyuwi, we reboarded our prop plane for the 10-minute flight to the village of Tunempadi. After landing and disembarking, Mincaye and Mineawa led us down a dirt path towards the shore of the Curaray river.
We emerged from the path within one hundred yards of “the spot.” The constant flow of the Curaray has since eroded the specific sand bar that made up the original Palm Beach, but the spot has not been forgotten.
Since I’ve returned from Ecuador, a lot of people have asked me “what it was like” to stand where those five missionaries died. To be sure, I felt a sense of history and solemnness. But in the end, it’s just a beach in the middle of the jungle.
While I stood on the beach and looked at Mark, Mitch and three Christian Waodani, I realized the story lies in the present, not the past. Or, more to the point, the story demonstrates the gospel’s power to transform individual lives and cultures.
As American Christians lament Western society’s increasing secularism, it is easy to become fatalistic and forget that the gospel comes not “in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:5). It can transform an isolated, fear-driven tribal society, where 70 percent of men could expect to be murdered at some point, to one that stands as a spiritual leader among Ecuadorian tribes, all within a few decades.
The gospel transforms lives so dramatically that Dyuwi—a murderer of the men who brought the faith he now follows—can look Mark square in the face and joyfully tell him that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he is forgiven in the eyes of God.
As we flew back to Los Angeles, I could not help but think of 2 Corinthians 5:17, where the Apostle Paul—a murderer himself—tells the previously pagan Corinthians that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new is come.” Whether in the jungles of Ecuador or on the campus of The Master’s University, the gospel has the same effect: it convicts, saves and transforms, regardless of human effort.
Before leaving for spring break, Mark, Mitch and I figured we’d experience Ecuador’s splendor, whether that came in the natural landscapes, the people or the food. None of that, however, compared with the beauty of the gospel.