Steve Saint’s life experience is far from the beaten path. When he was five years old, Saint’s father, Nate, was murdered in attempts to reach an indigenous tribe in the deep jungles of Ecuador.
Saint and his fellow missionary comrades Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming and Roger Youderian became household names in the 1950s when it was discovered that the Waodanis had killed them. In the years following that brutal tragedy, Steve’s mother and aunt decided to reestablish contact with the Waodanis and teach them the ways of Christ.
Fifty years later, Steve shares his time between American and Waodani ministries. With the recent production of “End of the Spear,” a movie about the martyred missionaries and the eventual change in the Waodani tribe, Steve’s message of revitalizing American missions is that much stronger.
During a return visit to Liberty last week with Mincaye, one of the men who killed Steve’s father, Steve sat down for an interview with the Champion.
Champion: How do you feel the movie “End of the Spear” has been received in America?
SAINT: I think it’s been well received. We get lots of comments from people who have no tie to the church at all and have rented the movie because they’re interested in the Amazon or they’re interested in tribal peoples. I have a T-shirt that says “End of the Spear” on it — I wear it once in awhile and people will come up to me and say, “Oh, I saw that movie!” (They) have no idea that I’m involved in it, and they’ll say, “That movie is made by Christians, but it sure didn’t seem like it.” What they’re saying is, “I could watch it, and I didn’t feel like it was condescending or preachy.”
Champion: What made you decide to visit the Waodani tribe when you were 10?
SAINT: My aunt invited me in. I loved the jungles, and I couldn’t wait to meet these people that my dad had died for, and my aunt had risked her life for and my mom had been praying for, for so many years.
Champion: Were you afraid at all?
SAINT: Never. I took my cues from the folks around me, and they didn’t seem to be afraid. My mom wouldn’t let me have a pellet gun. I figured if she’d let me go into the jungle and didn’t let me have a pellet gun, there couldn’t be any danger there.
Champion: What kind of influence did your Aunt Rachel have on your life?
SAINT: She was like a second mother to me. She was extremely stubborn but a woman of extreme faith.
Champion: How has the tribe changed since encountering the gospel?
SAINT: The big change that the gospel made was in individual lives, people beginning to “walk a new trail,” as Mincaye says. Probably 20-25 percent of the tribe decided to be God-followers. But for the whole tribe, they finally had an authority figure that they could all accept who said, “Don’t live angry and hating and killing each other,” and so the killing stopped almost immediately. There wasn’t any geographical or cultural change, it was just this information saying, “There is an authority,” and he doesn’t see it well when people hate or kill each other. It gave them a mechanism which they had never had for generations in their culture to quit killing. That made a huge difference. Mincaye has 13 children and his wife just named 61 grandchildren. In the old days, they would have been a small family from killing and disease and things, so the fact that they are such a huge family is a great novelty.
Champion: What do you tell people who say we should leave the third world alone and not try to influence them, but instead let them retain their native culture?
SAINT: I think they have a point, but in that we should not be the ones deciding how they should change. There is an opinion that missionaries go in and force people to change. You can’t force people to change their beliefs, but the concept that people have that all tribal peoples live in Edenic situations is extremely, extremely naïve.
These people said themselves, when they were being interviewed for the documentary, as did secular anthropologists, that if this new information, the gospel, had not come in, there would be nobody left. That’s the same thing you see in the documentary, “(Beyond the) Gates of Splendor.” As quoted in the movie, “If they had not come and taught us to walk this new trail, there would be nobody left.” They had a 60 percent homicide rate, and the tribe had dwindled down to just a few hundred people.
People say we shouldn’t go and ruin their culture. I agree! We have no place to go and ruin people’s culture. We do have a mandate to go and offer a new culture, a different culture, not a North American culture but the culture that Christ calls us to. It’s not only very different from their culture, but it’s also very different than our culture. Unfortunately, all too often we go intending to give them Christ’s culture and we give them our North American culture. That needs to stop.
Champion: What is the biggest change? How have the Waodani reacted to the modern world?
SAINT: Cessation of killing. You have a 60 percent homicide rate within the tribe plus those people in the tribe who were being killed by people outside the tribe. They were a culture of death. That changing has had a huge impact on them. The new generation has become mesmerized by materialism, by things that are available on the outside. It’s a real struggle for them. They don’t want to be Waodani, but they don’t have skills to offer to the outside world. They’re in a very precarious situation.
Champion: Did you struggle with belief in God after your father’s murder?
SAINT: I was so young. I took my cues from my mother and my aunt. I saw a strong, consistent, humble faith that at that point I just accepted. Later on, as I got older, I needed to accept it for myself. But by then, Mincaye had loved me, and I loved him, and we had become family, so the forgiveness thing never really happened. It never occurred to me that I needed to forgive him. My mom just always treated everything that happened like this was God’s plan. We’re his servants. We don’t tell him, he tells us. Her acceptance of it made it very easy for me to accept it, even though it was devastating.
Champion: What would you tell the American church today regarding global evangelism? Are we doing a good job?
SAINT: On a scale of one to 10, I’d say about a three to five. But I think we can do much better. I think the opportunity on a scale of one to 10 is about 12. We are still here smugly thinking that the gospel is from “the West to the rest,” but really we are now the third or fourth missionary receiving country in the world. Those people we’ve taken the gospel to . . . are afraid we’ll become the next Europe.
They are sending missionaries back here to try to shore up the Christian church in North America. The true “God-follower” Christian has become a nebulous term.
Contact Joyanna Gilmour at firstname.lastname@example.org.