Not in Vain

On a trek through the Amazon, students learned firsthand that five young missionaries speared by Huaodani tribesmen did not die in vain.
Luis Palau
In 1997, thirty-four students from colleges in Washington State embarked on a summer trip of a lifetime: an anthropological trek to visit the Huaodani (pronounced wow-DAH-nee) people deep in the Amazon jungles of South America.

When they left for the jungle, the students weren’t aware of three very important facts. First, that the Huaodani came to the world’s attention more than forty years earlier when several of their tribesmen speared to death five young missionaries. Second, being from secular colleges and not young men and women of faith, they had never heard the names of those five who were killed: Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Ed McCulley, and Roger Youderian. Third, following that horrific event, many Huaodani came to know Jesus Christ through the efforts of Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel.

To reach the Huaodani encampment, the students followed Steve Saint, the son of one of the five martyrs. Steve had spent time living with his Aunt Rachel and the Huaodani while growing up and could communicate in their language. Several Huaodani acted as guides to walk the group through the eastern flanks of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador and down into the virgin Amazon basin. Their three-day trek along a jungle trail included several downstream stretches in dugout canoes.

As the students unloaded their bags at the campsite, Steve could see rapport building between them and their guides—so much so that as they settled around a campfire that evening, a student asked Steve about the “savage Huaodani” they had read about before leaving the United States.

Sitting on logs under a star-studded sky, Steve calmly explained, “The very people you have been traveling, eating, and sleeping with—your guides—are, in fact, those ‘savages.’”

“That can’t be true!” one student exclaimed, as others murmured their agreement.

“But it is,” Steve replied. “If you don’t believe me, why don’t we ask some of these Huaodani where their fathers are.”

Taking up the challenge, one student nodded toward a Huaodani woman. Steve translated.

“Boto meampo doobae wendapa,” she replied—“Having been speared, he died a long time ago.” Her tone of voice suggested that any other cause would have been unusual.

Overhearing the conversation, four more Huaodani volunteered that their fathers had also been speared and killed. One woman, Ompodae, nodded toward an older man who was listening to their conversation a few feet away. His name was Dabo.

“See him?” said Ompodae. “He killed my father and nearly the rest of my family, too.”

The students couldn’t believe that a woman could talk so calmly about a person—someone sitting a few yards away—who killed most of her family.

Dawa, another Huaodani woman, spoke up. Pointing to her aging husband, Kimo, she said, “Hating us, Kimo speared my father, my brothers, my mother, and my baby sister, whom my mother was nursing in her hammock. Then he took me and made me his wife.”

The visitors were stunned. “How could she live with a man who murdered her family?” one young woman asked.

Realizing that the students did not know about the missionary slayings, he put his arm around Kimo’s shoulders and informed them, “Kimo killed my father, too.”

This was too much to comprehend. “What changed these people?” a student asked.

Steve knew the answer, but wanted the group to hear it from the lips of Dawa, Kimo, and the other Huaodani. They explained how they used to kill inconvenient babies, and how mothers strangled daughters to meet the demands of dying husbands, who wanted their children to keep them company in the hereafter.

The Huaodani explained that evil spirits and witch doctors’ curses could kill as effectively as their warriors’ spears. They spoke of living in constant fear of being ambushed, even while working in the gardens. Then they explained to these highly educated young people how they learned that the “Man Maker” sent His Son to die for people full of hate, fear, and desire for revenge.

“We now follow God’s trail,” said Dawa. Then she asked Steve to translate a question for the audience. “All people die, but if you are following God’s trail, then dying will lead you to heaven. But only one trail leads there. Have you heard me well? Which one of you wants to follow God’s trail?”

There was silence again. A lone hand rose into the night air. Dawa joyously clapped her hands and said, “We will see each other in God’s place some day.”

Around a campfire in the Amazon, the 21st century came face to face with the Stone Age—and came up short. In a fleeting but eternal moment, Steve Saint saw the Great Commission of Jesus Christ—“tell people about me everywhere [even] to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8)—come full circle. Dawa’s witness to the gospel was living proof that his father’s blood truly had not been shed in vain.

Copyright © 2001 by Luis Palau. All rights reserved. Excerpted from It’s A God Thing (Doubleday, 2001). Published with permission. To read more “God thing” stories, visit the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association Web site at www.lpea.org/Godthing.shtml .

Originally published June 01, 2008.