The Rest of the Story
The crowd in the echoing hall of the airport ebbs and flows like flotsam and jetsam in a dirty river. I keep my eye on the red feather in the bird-breast headpiece worn by an elfin man. He still seems more legend than reality. I am following Mincaye, a leader of the formerly "stone age" Waodani people of Ecuador's Amazon jungle. He is following Babae, Steve Saint. Steve's baseball-capped head bobs up and down with his gait, like that of a lanky teenager. I think Mincaye would follow him anywhere, but here, in Hyderabad, India, Mincaye follows especially closely.
This is the latest chapter in a story that began 50 years ago on a remote sandbar in the jungles of Ecuador. Then Mincaye and fellow tribesmen used spears and machetes to slaughter Saint's father, Nate Saint, a Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) pilot, along with missionaries Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian.
The story, first recounted in Life magazine and now retold in End of the Spear, a motion picture released this month, has inspired many Christians to consider a missionary calling and sparked dozens of books (including Elisabeth Elliot's Through Gates of Splendor), movies, radio programs, and articles. More importantly, the violent, short lives of the Waodanicalled "Auca," or savages, at the timewere transformed. Mincaye, once a murderer of missionaries, has become a missionary himself. That's why he is here.
Also remarkable is how well Mincaye represents where the missions movement is headed.
"I came to speak God's carvings," Mincaye says, as Steve translates from Wao tededö into English. "Carvings" is the term the Waodani use for the Bible. "God tells us to teach the other people."
From 'Stone Age' to Today
While death by spear is no longer a threat for the estimated 25 percent to 40 percent of the tribe who believe in Christ, some Waodani villages still carry out murderous vendettas. "If people die and haven't heard, it's all over for them," says Mincaye, presumed to be in his 70s. Speaking of the most recent (2003) killing spree among the Waodani, Mincaye leans his leathery brown face toward mine and slices a thick finger across my throat. Then he holds up his hands, fingers splayed, and gestures to his feet, now covered in stiff leather shoes. He claps his hands together and my stomach does an uncomfortable flip.
"He is saying that they killed as many as his fingers and his toes," Steve explains.
According to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary's World Christian Database, some 80 percent of the Waodani (also known through the years as the Waorani or the Huarani) have heard the message, with 40 percent professing Christian faith. (MAF, however, estimates that only a quarter of the group is Christian.) From only 600 Waodani documented in 1958, the tribe has grown to about 2,000, according to anthropologists James S. Boster and James Yost and linguist Catherine Peeke of Wycliffe Bible Translators' sister organization, SIL International (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics). Other estimates put the number at 1,000.
Whatever the precise figures, any population growth is a welcome change from the Waodani's homicidal history. According to Yost, formerly a research and consultant anthropologist for SIL, half of all Waodani deaths prior to the first friendly contact by Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot in 1958 resulted from murders by fellow tribe members. (Another 20 percent were from shootings by outsiders, according to Yost.)