Conversation: Steve Saint
Christians this year have been reminded of the powerful redemptive story of Jesus dying on the cross by the account of five young U.S. missionaries willingly surrendering their lives in the Amazon jungles of Ecuador half a century ago. The motion picture The End of the Spear details their martyrdom, as does the book of the same name by Steve Saint, son of missionary pilot Nate Saint.
Waodani Indians murdered Nate Saint just before SteveÕs fifth birthday. Yet NateÕs sister, Rachel Saint, went to live among the Waodani two years later. Soon, the Waodani stopped spearing each other in vendetta killings, a practice that would have led to their extinction.
By the time of her death in 1994, Rachel Saint had helped translate the New Testament into their native language. Today an estimated 550 of the 2,500 Waodani are ÒGod followers.Ó
Upon his auntÕs death, Steve Saint relinquished a lucrative business career and accepted an invitation from the Waodani to live among them in primitive surroundings — and bring his wife and four children with him. Today he considers Mincaye, a man who speared and hacked his father to death with a machete, as one of his closest friends.
ÒI donÕt think I could have loved my own father any more dearly than I have come to love Mincaye,Ó Saint writes in his book.
Saint now divides his time between Ecuador and Dunnellon, Fla., where his nonprofit Indigenous PeopleÕs Technology and Education Center (I-TEC) helps churches overcome technological and educational hurdles so they can become self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating.
Saint recently talked with News Editor John W. Kennedy.
tpe:: Why did you go live among a people who killed your father?
SAINT: Actually, I first went to live with my aunt. She had been like a mother to my dad because their mother was fragile and Aunt Rachel ran the household. She practically raised my dad, who was much younger. It was a natural thing to go spend the summers and Christmas vacation with her while growing up.
tpe: Your Aunt Rachel appeared to be a brave woman.
SAINT: She didnÕt know she was ÒsupposedÓ to be afraid in certain situations. She had no fear of what man could do to her. One night all the Waodani started yelling. I woke Aunt Rachel up and asked what they were saying and she said they were yelling about another tribe coming to spear them. Then she went back to sleep.
tpe: You didnÕt know who actually speared your father until 1994.
SAINT: I knew the group of men involved, but I didnÕt know the details. Aunt Rachel had always said the subject was taboo, because if we talked to them about it they would assume we wanted revenge.
After Aunt Rachel died, the Waodani began asking me for details, like why didnÕt the missionaries fight back when they had guns? It wasnÕt until two years ago that I figured out that Mincaye had finished killing my dad.
tpe: Does it anger you that the whole killing spree resulted from one manÕs lie to cover up a romance?
SAINT: No. That manÕs son is one of my dear friends and an elder in the church. I think God planned this. I know some people take offense at that.
But six Waodani warriors would never have attacked five outsiders when they knew those men had guns. The fact that all five of them were speared and didnÕt flee made the story much more powerful.
Acts 2:23 says evil men killed Christ, but according to GodÕs preordained plan. Joseph in Genesis 50:20 says what men meant for evil, God meant for good.
tpe: The martyrdom of these five men inspired many others to become missionaries. Why?
SAINT: ThereÕs no way we can fully know how many, but itÕs definitely thousands. I spoke to a group of more than 200 missionaries from Jungle Aviation Radio Service, the technical branch of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and over half of them stood up to indicate what they were doing was a direct result of the martyrdom.
Early in my life my mom kept telling me that a lot of people criticized my dad and the other four for being poorly prepared and using poor judgment. People thought, Who will ever want to be a missionary after that experience? Now, 50 years later, we know exactly the opposite happened.
tpe: How did you forgive people who not only murdered, but also regularly exhibited jealously and vengeance without much provocation?
SAINT: I had a heritage of forgiveness. My dad loved these people enough that he was willing to die for them. My mom kept praying for them after they killed her husband and the father of her three children. My aunt was willing to risk her life to go live with them.
When I went to live with them at age 9 for the first time, I was thinking, These must be the most precious, special people on Earth; why else would my family care so much about them?
tpe: Then as an adult you decided to move your wife and four children to the primitive jungle.
SAINT: I didnÕt want to do it. I could have stayed in business and paid someone else to train them. I didnÕt imagine how my wife, Ginny, could handle it, or how the kids would react. But I didnÕt want to be a part of the dependency that has been debilitating and demeaning to the Waodani culture.
The Waodani exercise this Òfamily normÓ that allows one family member to insist on another living with them for mutual protection. I realized if I didnÕt accept their invitation, I would cease being a part of the family. With over 40 years with the Waodani, the relationship was too precious.
tpe: Yet you discovered that with the Westernization and Christianization of the tribe it had become too dependent on outsiders.
SAINT: The very church that had been planted at such a dear price had ceased to function because outsiders did everything for them. They no longer had elders. They told me, ÒWe want you to teach us how do things for ourselves.Ó
tpe: How does I-TEC help?
SAINT: There still is no economy in the jungle. They are hunter-gatherers. They have no electrical power, no communication system, no transportation system. So in their culture they donÕt necessarily need to go through the same training we do.
IÕm trying to convince the Waodani to take the initiative. For instance, rather than us coming in two weeks a year with a team to fix everybodyÕs teeth, weÕve taught them how to do dentistry.
We have started a project so that they can begin building sophisticated airplanes in the jungle for export to the United States. These guys donÕt have a high school education, but they have skills with their hands. John 15:16 says to go and bear fruit that remains.
tpe: This all shows that it really is possible to love your enemies.
SAINT: These people should have been my enemies. God transformed my heart. I didnÕt have the formula for forgiveness. Ephesians 2:16 says Christ put enmity to death on the cross. That was something I did not fully understand in my Christian walk until I listened to God and obeyed Him and let Him write the story.
tpe: Tell me how the unexpected death of your only daughter, Stephanie [at age 20 in 2000 from a brain aneurysm], has affected your faith.
SAINT: That was the most excruciating and horrendous thing. I grew up believing that one of the great reasons we needed to be saved was that we have Somebody to thank for all the blessings of life. Who do those who donÕt know God thank for their work, for the weather, for their loved ones?
When Stephanie died, I had a great opportunity to show God that I trust Him and I love Him and that I will submit to His will.
Mincaye was with me when Stephanie died and he reminded me of the parallels of how my dadÕs death changed his life. Although Ginny and I are trusting God, the sadness of missing Stephanie has made us begin to understand just a little bit how God must feel about those who do not know Him and donÕt even understand that He wants them to be reconciled to Him.