Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Piercing Memories - Christopher Lewis - Avant Ministries

Fifty years ago, Avant’s Roger Youderian was one of five jungle missionaries martyred at the End of the Spear. It marked the beginning of a tribe’s epic transformation. Yet it took a modern tragedy by the so-called civilized to bring the story to theaters.

By Christopher Lewis
Avant Senior Editor
Posted January 2006

Somewhere along the way, you can find yourself in this story. That is, if you’re willing to get utterly lost in it.

January’s nationwide release of the film End of the Spear is the 50-year trail marker on a timeless story of redemption and reconciliation: how the martyring of five young missionary friends on a jungle shoreline in Ecuador became a beachhead for ushering peace into the most violent tribe ever documented.

The film thoroughly captures a true story that grabbed headlines worldwide in January 1956. This reality overwhelmed the 300 people attending a recent screening in a Kansas City movie theater. The lights dimmed on a chatty crowd casually munching popcorn; 111 minutes later, the credits rolled past a hushed and motionless audience, many with tear-streaked faces.

FYI: You are entering not just a theater, but a remote trail of the heart. And it’s best journeyed without a geographical, religious or cultural compass. Without flawed instruments of human logic and presumption that would come undone in the dense mystery of the Amazon Basin.

Where do you begin telling a story as mighty and as fragile and as unending as the Amazon River that flows through it, yet cannot contain it? Perhaps with a resolute widow who forgives, befriends and takes up residence with the natives who speared her husband.

Or maybe with the transformed tribesmen who resisted telling their side – until the tragic 1999 Columbine school shootings, a generation and a continent away, convinced them to peel back the rainforest curtain.

Or even with the novice Christian producer who spent $30 million filming the story – despite a conservative church upbringing that barred him from stepping foot inside a movie theater before this project began seven years ago.

Producer Mart Green (far right) chats with an actor on the film set. Photos courtesy of Every Tribe Entertainment.

Actually, End of the Spear begins with the narration of a son, Steve Saint: “Some people say we live in a world of irreconcilable differences ...” Saint was baptized by the very Waodani Indians who had killed his father, in the same waters where they’d dumped the bodies … of Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Jim Elliot and Avant’s own Roger Youderian.

* * *

Watching the movie “was extremely emotional. It wasn’t just a ‘spiritual thing.’ Dad really did suffer,” says Saint, now 54, from his home in central Florida. “People are so fascinated by all the little subplots. God doesn’t promise that all the chapters will be easy, but in the last chapter God does promise to make sense of all the others. It’s the same in everyone’s story.”

It was Saint’s speech at a 1997 missions seminar that inspired Christian retail mogul Mart Green to break into filmmaking in 2002 with Beyond the Gates of Splendor. This gripping documentary version was distributed on DVD to 15,000 churches last year and later to retail outlets, as a primer and momentum-builder for this month’s big-screen adaptation. Rated PG-13, End of the Spear is opening in 1,200 theaters, in target markets modeled after The Passion of the Christ – Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta. “The Passion showed us that there is an audience [for spiritual films], if it’s quality,” says Green, 44, of Oklahoma City. The CEO and founder of Every Tribe Entertainment, Green says the award-winning films intentionally lack Mel Gibson’s star power.

“We’ve always wanted the story to be the star,” Green says.

The loudest part of the story is not quite so audible. The script purposely eschews evangelistic overtones, which frees the average viewer to embrace the story and identify personally with the transparent themes of love and forgiveness, Green says. Saint vehemently disagrees with murmurings among some conservative churches and surviving family members who say the gospel isn’t trumpeted enough. “Besides, that would be preaching to the choir,” he says.

End of the Spear appeals to post-modern generations who don’t tolerate bullhorn pulpits, Christian or not. Saint believes the message is forthright and culturally relevant – in the same way Jesus spoke in parables. Movies are “the medium where our culture opens their heart, in the dark, for two hours – much more than in church,” Saint says.

This puts the marketing onus where it belongs, Green says – on a church body now empowered with a real story. He’s counting on Christians to continue the film’s conversation buzz around cafés and office water coolers. “What’s the most influential ‘mission field’ in the world? It’s Hollywood. But when’s the last time you saw Christians positively portrayed in a film?” Green says. “People start weeping during this film – not because we told them what to think, but because they’re on an emotional journey.”

For both filmmaker and viewer, the story “takes you out of your comfort zone. And it comes at a price,” Green says. “But the journey is worth it.”

The journey has been questioned by some Christian organizations. They are rankled that the film’s secular cast and crew unwittingly included a homosexual actor and others who partied with prostitutes during film shoots in Panama. Saint says he “agonized” over such behind-the-scenes behavior, but then realized the hypocrisy of wanting a top-notch crew to portray Christians both on camera and off. In effect, the film field became a mission field.

“I remember breaking for ice cream once at a McDonald’s in Panama, and an actor sat down beside me and said, ‘I don’t know anything about the Bible, but I really affirm this story. Thank you for letting me be a part of it. It makes me want to know what’s in that book that made the families want to go [to the jungle],’” Saint recalls. “I mean, imagine if the five missionaries had said, ‘We’ll risk our lives, but only if the people meet certain standards.’”

Another actor, while visiting the Waodani, asked, “What is sin?” At the actor’s request, the Waodani excitedly gathered and prayed for him to walk the trail of Waengongi, Creator God.

News reports of the jungle tragedy in 1956 startled Christians and non-Christians alike. But End of the Spear is more than a 50th anniversary commemoration. It doesn’t gloss over the gruesome sacrifice made by the missionaries. But it doesn’t loiter around it, either. In fact, the viewer may not even see it as a missionary movie. And ultimately, it’s not. For that, screening audiences have been grateful, Saint says. “They say, ‘Oh, thank you. I’m so relieved this is not another Christian movie. I won’t be embarrassed to bring my friends.’”

The power is in the parallel storytelling. Green dumped three early film scripts that ignored his creed of telling the Waodani side – one writer even dared to turn in a comedy. “They told me it was impossible, that a North American audience wouldn’t empathize with the Indian view,” Green says.

In the end, the “white man’s” perspective is threaded so deftly with first-hand Waodani accounts that they become one voice, of one accord.

The missionary thread

Beyond the Gates is interspersed with vivid movie segments to promote the feature film. Beyond mere marketing, however, the documentary is really the historical loom supporting a well-woven story. It’s homespun with a collage of interviews, family photos and 16mm footage from Wheaton College track meets, graduations and weddings. Roger’s widow, Barbara, and his former field partner, retired Avant missionary Frank Drown, are among the many loved ones who reminisce with sentimental humor and candid emotion. You hear about courtship, marriage proposals, and practical jokes. About how Jim Elliot, the ringleader and life of the party, convinced Ed McCully, class president and champion orator, to put off law school and join the mission field. About how McCully’s mother feared he wasn’t a Christian because he loved to dance.

By 1953 the five missionary couples were scattered at various base camps in Ecuador, connected by mission pilot Nate Saint’s ferrying about visitors and supplies from his home in Shell Mera. Steve Saint’s boyhood character and his dad’s little bush plane take center stage in the movie – Steve recalls him working on a toy model of the PA-14 Piper cruiser in 1955. The 5-year-old was disappointed on Christmas morning when he didn’t find the model wrapped as a present beneath the family tree. Days later, beneath the jungle trees, it was presented to the Waodani as a friendly “first-contact” gift.

The Waodani thread

Many Waodani are both interviewed in the documentary and role-played in the movie (by a Panama tribe). Some of the same tribesmen who speared the missionaries are today church elders. Their xenophobic memories pierce the film scripts and narrate the raw footage shot by the white cowadi, or foreigners, in their final hours.

They graphically describe the vicious cycle of blood feuds and vendettas, even within the tribe, that forced the Waodani to the brink of extinction. One anthropologist found that 60 percent of Waodani deaths for five generations had been homicides. Within just a few years of the missionary killings, after Jim Elliot’s widow and Nate Saint’s sister boldly moved in with the tribe and began teaching the Bible, the homicide rate dropped 90 percent.

Says former Waodani warrior Mincaye: “We acted badly, badly, until they brought us God’s carvings. Now we walk His trail.”

In post-World War II America, the martyred missionaries became a household story that galvanized a generation of Christians to live their part in the Great Commission. In fact, in the 11 years following the massacre, Avant’s missionary roster in Ecuador jumped from 51 to 91. (It was then known as Gospel Missionary Union.)

Mincaye has traveled the world with Steve Saint and the United States with Christian songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman, who three years ago recorded a music video with both men in the jungle. Mincaye spices the documentary with humor when his Waodani mind tries to comprehend American showers, credit cards, grocery stores (“big food houses”) and escalators (“that’s why all the foreigners are fat” – the “trail” moves instead of their feet, he says.)

However, when Saint first took Green to Ecuador in 1999 for permission to film the Waodani side of the story, the tribe said “No.” They changed their minds when Saint described the Columbine massacre in Colorado just months earlier. Ashamed of the tribe’s legacy as Auca, or “naked savages,” Mincaye’s wife tore off her blouse: “Tell them to show us like we were,” Ompodae shouted. “But also to tell how we are now.”

Family flight pattern

One of the Columbine victims was a Christian student who was martyred by a classmate for professing her faith. Ironically, the school shootings triggered a major turning point for the Waodani in overcoming shame about their own past. Case in point: Avant’s Frank Drown accompanied Steve Saint on a jungle flight in the 1980s. Sitting in a large hut full of Waodani, Saint explained to them that Drown was the Ecuador missionary who’d led the search party to recover and bury his five friends on a jungle hillside.

“They all got up and started for the door,” recalls Drown, now 83. “They thought I’d come back for [revenge]. Steve jumped up and said, ‘No! It’s OK! He’s a Christian!’”

In fact, Saint makes a cameo in End of the Spear – playing Frank Drown’s character. How tight is the Amazon bond? Drown’s son Ross, today an Avant board member, married Steve Saint’s sister, Kathy. Nate Saint, who was Frank Drown’s jungle pilot, must be smiling down on the two grandsons they now share – both are piloting F-15 jets in the U.S. Air Force.

“One of my greatest disappointments in life was that dad didn’t live to teach me how to fly,” Steve says. So it was an emotional thrill – if a bit unnerving – for him to pilot the stunt flights in the movie.

Steve Saint has also trained one of his childhood Waodani playmates, Tementa, as a bush pilot transporting medical supplies and sick Indians. It poignantly reflects Saint’s criticism of traditional missiology, which creates an unhealthy dependency on missionaries who “fish” instead of teaching nationals to fish for themselves, he says.
“That’s characteristic of much of 20th century missions. We dominate the national church until they are ‘like us,’” Saint says. “But Avant has taken a radical step of saying, ‘Let’s change.’ I hope what Avant has done catches on – recognizing the critical involvement of nationals. There’s a lot of [organizations] just giving this lip service, but Avant is doing it. Jesus said don’t just preach the gospel, but disciple and be sure the fruit remains.”

Saint’s Indigenous Technology Education Center (ITEC) is working on a “kit” airplane that Waodani could build and maintain, another step toward a self-supporting church. Indeed, half of all film proceeds will go toward helping indigenous tribes help themselves. The Waodani have also learned basic dentistry skills, which they use as an evangelism tool for reaching outside tribes. But even among their own people, some have resorted again to killing sprees.

More than playmates and planes, Steve’s bond with Tementa is virtually a blood covenant: Tementa’s father, Nenkiwi, was speared by his fellow Waodani months after Nenkiwi had played a pivotal role in the missionary attacks. Swimming with Tementa and friends as a child, “I was just one of the crowd,” Steve recalls in Beyond the Gates. “My father had been speared, too.”

Drown led a tense two-day canoe trip, escorted by U.S. and Ecuadorian soldiers, to recover the bodies. He was too emotional to rope together Nate Saint’s feet and pull him onto the beach, but composed himself to lead a storm-ridden funeral near the missionaries’ beachfront tree house.

“It was the most violent, sudden storm I’d ever seen. Clouds as black as night, thunder, lightning,” Drown says. “Some of the soldiers got scared and ran in. I was telling them, ‘No, you need to go out and stand guard.’ I didn’t have time to regret. We had to get everyone out of there.”

The speared bodies had been cut with the same machetes air-dropped as gifts from Nate Saint’s plane. The Waodani had hacked to pieces the wings of the “wood bee.”

This is where the film really takes flight, although the storyline’s full circles are almost too wide to capture on screen: how Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot move in with the tribe and tip-toe around family rivalries – “Do you think your people will spear me, the way they speared my husband?” asks Elisabeth. How Rachel mentors Dayumae, a Waodani woman who’d fled her community as a child (Viewer’s Guide). How Dayumae becomes the village preacher and helps spark revival. How Rachel and Elisabeth separate because of differences over ministry.

When Rachel died in 1994, after 30 years with the Waodani, the tribe asked Steve Saint and his family to leave Florida and make their home in the jungle. Which they did, for 18 months. Steve’s son Jesse became so close with nene (“grandpa”)Mincaye that the tribesman attended Jesse’s Florida high school graduation in 1997.

Mincaye lives to tell this story because Jesse’s real nene had kept a promise made half a century earlier: Although they were armed, the missionaries on the beach that January afternoon had vowed never to shoot the Waodani. As Nate Saint’s character tells little Stevie in End of the Spear, “Son, we can’t shoot the Waodani. They’re not ready for heaven, and we are.”