The plane landed on the sandbar of Ecuador’s Curaray River that January morning of 1956. Five missionaries, Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming and Roger Youderian were making their first in-person contact with the extremely remote Waodani tribe; a feat that few others had attempted. Famous for their merciless killing sprees, it was estimated that 60% of all Waodani deaths were caused by inter-tribal murders. These five missionaries, however, were moved to compassion for the Waodani. Their goal was to build a base near the Waodani village with the intention of sharing the life-giving hope with this people group steeped in death. Aware of the tribe’s extremely violent practices, the missionaries brought pistols along to shoot in the air in case an attack were to happen. Nevertheless, they had resolved together not to shoot anyone in self-defense, even to protect their own lives. “We’re ready for heaven. They’re not…” was their reasoning.
After several friendly encounters with the tribe, things seemed to be going smoothly. Little did they know what was to come a few days later. On January 8, 1956, after a fluke series of lies spread by one Waodani tribe member, all five of the missionaries were speared to death by a group of ten Waodani warriors. Among these ten warriors, holding a blood-tipped spear, was a young man named Mincaye…Shortly after the attack, all five of the missionaries’ bodies were found downstream of the site, floating in the Curaray River.
The story doesn’t end here though. Jesus says that “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) After their deaths, something astounding grew out of that little riverbank in Ecuador. A couple years later, in the summer of 1958, Rachel Saint, the sister of Nate Saint, accompanied by Elizabeth Elliot (Jim Elliot’s wife) and her daughter, returned to live among the Waodani people. As women, they were not perceived as a threat to the Waodani and thus able to gain acceptance into their society. At the same time, however, the Waodani were slightly suspicious. According to their tradition, the Waodani expected the families of the murdered men to avenge their deaths; instead, they witnessed something they’d never seen before. They saw the wife and sister of these murdered men return- not to take vengeance on them, but to serve them. Living among them, the women were able to learn their language, provide medical care and share the Gospel with this tribe. Several years later the women’s efforts came to fruition. Many of the Waodani came to faith including Mincaye, the very man who killed Nate Saint so many years before.
Throughout his childhood, Steve Saint, the son of Nate Saint would often return to visit Elizabeth Elliot and his Aunt Rachel as they lived among the Waodani. Over the years, something remarkable began to happen. As Steve’s relationship with the Waodani grew, the very people who had murdered his father when he was 5 years old started to become his family. This friendship developed so much so that eventually, Mincaye, the very man who killed his father, would become the adopted grandfather of Steve’s very own children…
Though Steve’s children never got to meet their biological grandfather, they inherited a new one. This new family tie, however, wasn’t wrought through ordinary means but handcrafted by God, himself. The murderer of their grandfather became their new grandfather in Christ. How is this possible? The answer is this truth: that “anyone who is in Christ is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17) Because of Jesus, Mincaye is a new creation. Because of Jesus, Mincaye is no longer the family’s enemy but part of the family itself. Because of Jesus, a brutal murder on a beachfront was turned into something beautiful. These missionaries who chose to make their family among their enemies testify to an even greater story- a story that shatters the power of the spear and the cycle of sin and death. It is the story of how God made His home among his enemies and then gave his own Son to be speared so that his enemies might become His family.
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them…For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
-2 Corinthians 5:18-21
If you’d like to hear more about Steve Saint’s personal story, you can listen to it here: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/sovereignty-suffering-and-the-work-of-missions