Anthropologists have called the Waorani tribe of Ecuador one of the most violent groups of people ever discovered. A magazine article one time called them ‘the worst people on earth.’ This tribe, which only recently began to emerge from the stone age, was on the verge of extinction in the 1950’s. About half of all Waorani tribe members that reached adulthood died at the hands of other Waoranis. If you were a Waorani, it was almost certain that you had a close family member who had been speared to death by other Waorani. They had only the most primitive tribal government, and disputes were not handled by courts or even by chiefs. Rather, if someone felt wronged they would simply kill the other person. If the family of the murdered man or woman felt the killing was unjustified, they would seek revenge by killing the killer, and the cycle of revenge would continue. To do anything but seek revenge was to show yourself to be weak. Sometimes, these individual killings would erupt into attacks by entire villages on other villages. This tribe was so remote and so feared that they were seldom approached by outsiders. They were far from any control by the government authorities, who were simply allowing them to kill each other off. By the mid-1950’s there were only a few hundred living members.
And then, in 1956 some missionaries risked their lives to contact these murderous people. The Waorani, like almost every people on earth, had a belief in God, but they did not know much about God. The missionaries told the Waorani that God had a son named Jesus who visited our world; and Jesus told people that God did not want them killing each other, and so it was wrong for the Waorani to do so. Eventually, the Waorani believed the missionaries and they obeyed what Jesus said, and, they quit killing each other. And now, there are about two or three thousand Waorani, six times as many as in the 1950’s. Sometimes, a Waorani will kill another Waorani, just like sometimes a Minnesotan will kill another Minnesotan. But it is rare there, as it is here. And on Sunday morning in Ecuador, just like here, many of the Waorani are in church, hearing the Word of God, and praying to Jesus.
Missionaries not only risked their lives to reach these people, but several died in the effort. The first five missionaries who made contact with this tribe in their own territory were killed the very first day they made contact. These five men were in their 20’s and 30’s, and all were married and had children. They had been dropping gifts by plane, and had reason to believe it was safe to land. They did land on a sand bar on the river near one of the villages, and the initial contact was friendly. Then something went wrong. One of the tribesmen that had been with the missionaries on the sand bar, ran back and told the rest of the men of the village some lies about what had happened. Then, the men of the village ran to the river, attacked, and killed all five men. Days later, soldiers went in to recover the bodies. The story was featured in Life magazine.
One would think that would be the end of the story. One would think everyone would certainly leave the Waorani to themselves now, allowing them to continue to kill each other.
But this was only the beginning of one of the most amazing stories in the history of Christian missions. Not long after the deaths of their husbands, some of the missionary wives began talking about how they might still reach these people. They were, after all, missionaries, and they were there to tell these people about Jesus. And who needed to hear more about the love of Jesus than the Waorani? And who could better show them the power of forgiveness better than the wives of the men that had just been killed? Of course it was dangerous, but they did not think that the tribesmen would kill unarmed women and children. So some of the wives and children and other family members went up the river to contact, and then, to live with the Waorani.
One of the women, an unmarried sister of one of the slain men, stayed for almost forty years, until she died of cancer in the early 1990’s. Another, the wife of one of the men killed, went with in with her five year old daughter, and stayed two years. Others, came and went over the years. The Waorani built for them primitive homes like their own. The missionaries brought medical supplies, matches, metal knives and axes, pot and pans, and other miracles from the modern world. And, they brought the Gospel. In time, a large number of the Waorani came to believe their message. One of them, Mincaye, eventually became a missionary, and traveled around the world telling his story. He traveled with Steven Saint, the son of Nathan Saint, the missionary pilot were brought the five men to that river bank where they all died. Mincaye himself killed Nathan Saint with a spear in 1956 when Steven was just seven years old. Mincaye died just a couple years ago, but had become like a father to Steven and like a grandfather to Steven’s children. (continued…)
Nathan Saint on the sand bar where he was killed later that same day.
Steven Saint and Mincaye, the Waorani who killed Steven’s father. See and hear them at:
Romans 5:8-10 — God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
2 Peter 3:9 — The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Psalm 33:8 — Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere him.
Prayer of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries killed by the Waorani in 1956. He was 29 years old: