“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
– Jim Elliot, 1927-1956
They were known as one of the most violent social groups in modern history. Family members routinely killed one another over simple disagreements; babies who cried too much were abandoned; and vengeance, in all its homicidal fury, was considered an acceptable motive for spearings – not just outside the tribe, but within. The Waodani, called “Aucas” (“savages”) by their neighbors, were known for murder, with little remorse or regret.
Despite their mundane approach to murder, however, the Waodani had a paralyzing fear of death and what would happen to their bodies in the afterlife. Mortally wounded men were customarily buried alive. They would even demand that one of their younger children be buried alive with them, simply because they did not want to die alone.
So it was not without great prayer and consideration that missionaries Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully and Roger Youderian moved to Ecuador during the early '50s to befriend the remote tribe. Ultimately, the five young men would die a violent, seemingly nonsensical death at the hands of the Waodani.
But the story does not end there.
Although the missionaries were never able to share the Gospel with the Waodani, God had been paving the way for a dramatic conversion. Within just two years of the arrival of Rachel Saint (sister of the slain missionary Nick Saint) and Elisabeth Elliot (widow of slain missionary Jim Elliot) among the tribe, the homicide rate among the Waodanis dropped by 90 percent. Their peace continues to this day, and the Waodanis – along with several family members of the men they murdered – are all serving the Lord among the indigenous people of their country.
Now, the story is being brought to life in a compelling documentary which uses original images and footage from the actual events of 1956, when LIFE magazine chronicled the story, along with firsthand accounts from the missionaries’ widows and interviews with their children and even the tribesmen involved in the killings. It is also being made into a feature film.
“The events that brought peace to the Waodani tribe after they brutally speared five missionary men illustrate a story that is still relevant and inspiring today,” says founder and CEO of Bearing Fruit Communications, Mart Green, a Christian retailer and one of the film’s producers. “When I first heard this story, I knew it had to be made into a movie so it could be shared with others. Regardless of your age, nationality or religion, one cannot help but find inspiration in this incredible story of redemption and forgiveness.”
The story of the Waodani’s conversion – and their dramatic reconciliation with Steve Saint and the families of the other slain missionaries – is so astounding, however, that Green knew a feature film wouldn’t be enough. That’s why he decided to produce a documentary first. That project, called “Beyond the Gates of Splendor,” is currently being screened at interested churches all around the country and will be available for purchase in October.
“We want to reach 10,000 churches with this documentary and expose them to the story,” Green says. “People need to realize that this is a true story, without exaggeration or embellishment. It was God’s Word that transformed the lives of the Waodani, and that’s my passion – the power of God’s Word to transform lives.”
The story is also, Green insists, about reconciliation and adventure.
“God has an adventure for each of our lives, and if we step out, He’ll take us to another level,” he says. “God will take us places that we don’t expect to go.”
The irony of the missionaries’ adventure among the Waodani, interestingly enough, is not the tribe’s dramatic conversion to Christianity, nor even their peaceful coexistence, which continues five decades later. It’s not even the fact that Steve Saint, who was five years old when his father was killed, grew up befriending the men who had killed his father, but also came to love them, to regard them as family, to be baptized by their hands and to be embraced as a son in their tribe.
The ultimate irony is that the Waodani only agreed to participate in the making of these films after the tragic shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. When the tribesmen heard how children had been killed by other children for no apparent reason, they concluded that the gunmen were “savages,” as they had once been, who desperately needed to hear the message of the gospel.
“The way the Waodani express their faith is compelling,” says Saint, who now lives in the U.S. but travels back and forth to Ecuador, working with the Waodani to reach out to neighboring tribes through his nonprofit organization, the Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center. “It’s free from a lot of the churchiness and expressions we use. They aren’t as sophisticated, so it comes across as more palatable.”
This is one of the reasons Saint wanted to tell this story, which is based on Elisabeth Elliot’s book, “Through the Gates of Splendor.” Produced by Every Tribe Entertainment and a top-notch team of directors, actors and cinematographers, “End of the Spear” will be a full-length feature film that will debut in theaters across the nation in January of next year, on the 50th anniversary of the killings.
Green hopes that the Christian community will not only make it a success, but allow the story to transform the lives of family, friends, neighbors and coworkers.
“Our goal was to speak to a broad audience, like “Chariots of Fire,” in the style of Mark 4:11,” he says. “The film, we hope, will create readiness and nudge people toward insight. Christians can share the film, then go deeper if they want. People don’t want to be hit over the head [with the Gospel.]”
Churches interested in requesting a “Beyond the Gates” church screening kit, which includes advertising materials, study guides and even sermon notes, can order one at www.beyondthegatesthemovie.com or by calling (800) 695-9847.