There’s nothing quite like reading a book about a true event on the anniversary of when it took place. That’s what happened this week as I was reading Janet and Geoff Benge’s biography, Nate Saint: On a Wing and a Prayer, with my family. Here was a Pennsylvania kid who used his love of flying and military aviation experience to serve missionaries living in a remote area of the Amazon rain forest. By flying his Piper Cruiser across the dense Ecuadorian jungle, he could supply others with food, medicine and life-saving transportation.
Contemporary Western culture often gives Christian missionaries a bad rap. They help preserve endangered languages, provide medical care in some of the world’s most desperate places, rescue children from sexual slavery and provide disaster relief, micro loans and education to lift families out of poverty. But because they typically do it while also sharing their faith, their work is sometimes derided.
Some criticism is deserved. Missionaries have made many mistakes. Yet twelve years of research by Robert Woodbury, the former dean emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, showed that in places where Christians have shared their faith, societies tend to be freer, women are more educated, fewer children die in infancy, more people are healthy and literate and there is less corruption. Sometimes such developments have come at the cost of missionaries’ lives, like those of Nate Saint and four other young men who died sixty-four years ago this week while attempting to befriend a group of people known as the Huaorani, or Aucas.
Their story was even adapted into a movie, End of the Spear, but each time I hear it, I am inspired by the faithful trust of these men. Despite attempting to reach a group of people known for killing outsiders, they set up a camp several miles from a Huaorani village after using every means possible to let the people living there know that they came in peace.
Although the men carried guns to protect themselves from animals in the dense jungle, they’d agreed that they would not use them against the Huaorani, even if attacked. Their first visit with members of the tribe – one of whom asked Nate to fly him over the village in his plane – went well. However, on January 8, 1956, a misunderstanding led the Huaorani to believe the men had come as enemies, and the villagers speared all five to death. Two years later, Nate’s sister Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot, whose husband Jim Elliot had also been killed, and their 2 year old daughter, Valerie, were welcomed into the Huaorani village, where they continued the men’s mission.
As I read Nate’s story, I thought of how quickly cultural misunderstandings can lead to such tragic results, and of how we need more people like Nate and his friends who are willing to lay down their lives rather than take up weapons. I thought of their attempts to befriend people so different from themselves, and I am challenged to do the same. Because whether serving in a far-off jungle or a local soup kitchen or in the check-out line at Wal-Mart, that is the mission Jesus called all of his followers to: a mission of peace.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of mid-coast Maine. She is also the author of the children’s picture bookThe Backwards Easter Egg Hunt and four other books in the Lantern Hill Farm series, celebrating the holidays in a way that builds children’s faith. Connect at www.meadowrue.com