At the end of 1955 Nate Saint and a group of missionaries began Operation Auca, flying over Huaorani territory in search of the feared and elusive tribe of "Auca's" or "savages.” As mentioned in previous blogs, the missionaries were successful in making contact but were then speared to death by Huaorani who believed that all foreigners were threats and no gifts were given if you didn't want something in return. They were right.
However, killing the 5 missionaries did not preserve the Huaorani from the advance of the outside world. Instead, it catapulted them onto the radar of thousands of praying Christians and concerned oil exploration/ illegal logging groups. They were immediately famous to a world they did not want to know. Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot managed to live with a group of Huaorani, some of those responsible for the killings, and reportedly converted many of them. However, I still wonder about the value of the sacrifice versus the eternal impact on the Huaorani...and I think Elisabeth Elliot struggles with the same questions, which I’ll address later.
When we first arrived we crawled out of the plane and by way of orientation were informed that the place we were standing was the first community established by the missionaries. It was very near the site of the missionary killings, which happened on the other side of the air strip clearing on the river running parallel to the one we stood by. Our guide said a few brief things about the missionaries and we quickly understood he was NOT a fan. This was not surprising to us but it was disheartening. Our guide resented that the missionaries who have taught the Hua0rani over the past several decades, had not come to learn about the Huaorani, but to teach them what they wanted them to know. He primarily quoted the influence of Rachel Saint, who after moving to Huaorani territory stayed until her death in 1994. They wanted to convert them and he reported that they would lure them into friendship promising schools, gifts, etc. in exchange for becoming Christians. I asked for examples of this and he said kids would not be allowed to go to the missionary schools unless they had uniforms and they only got uniforms if they memorized certain Bible verses, etc. As horrible as it sounded from his perspective, I assumed that their motives were still good and it was nothing more than normal church-style evangelism – offer something you know they want and teach them Jesus while they are there. Like offering free child care in the form of VBS! Of course it’s a ploy, but it’s for a good cause, right?
We also learned that the mission schools required the Huaorani to speak Spanish, which the kids had been taught early on. They are not allowed to use their given names but have to adopt Spanish names. Any anthropologist will tell you about the serious cultural damage of taking away a cultures native language, and this has been greatly criticized. The missionaries were probably not concerned about cultural preservation, though. They needed to know JESUS, and needed to be civilized, what else mattered? What the Huaorani already knew, and what God may have already revealed about Himself to them was likely not considered.
We heard countless stories from Huaorani and our guide about the missionary methods. We did not see any evidence of people who followed Christianity – at best we saw that they had learned to play along with the missionaries to get supplies, education, and healthcare that they needed, but they did not fear God or even know Him. The opinions and beliefs of those closer to the mission may be different. One of the Huaorani who shared most passionately was directly related to Dayuma, one generation younger. She spoke with respect for Dayuma, telling the stories of her famous relative. Dayuma was Rachel Saints partner in evangelizing the Huarani after she and Elisabeth Elliot first came to the territory. Elisabeth Elliot did not stay as long and I wonder if it was because of disagreements with Rachel Saints methods, which have been widely debated. As criticized as Rachel Saint may be in some circles, however, she is still respected for the courage she displayed by moving and living with the Huaorani until her death. The greatest credit for her missionary influence was the decline in killings within the Huarani population. Their numbers were very low as a result of "avenge the death" killing sprees, and they may have wiped out their entire population if not for the influence of the missionaries. Even the missionaries greatest critics credit this as a plus.
The most significant cultural change, however, is the destruction of Huaorani territory by oil companies and illegal logging. After the missionary contact, the road was easier to pave, literally, into the Huaorani territory. Rachel Saint, along with other missionaries, encouraged the Huaorani to negotiate with oil companies. They believed the oil companies would come regardless so why not get something out of it. Whether this was the right or wrong way to go is hard to say. Those who have submitted are now dependent on the oil companies, and have been further corrupted by civilization, and its inherit evils - alcoholism for example. Those we were with began the Eco Lodge as a way to remain self reliant so that they did not need to compromise their values and become pawns of the oil company.
This allows the oil companies easier negotiating, using bribes of goods and fancy things from the outside world that fascinate the Huaorani, luring them in to submission while their territory is being stripped from around them. Since the missionaries use similar tactics to build relationship with the Huaorani, you can see how the outside perspective links these two together, calling their gifts bribes. Even I was guilty of this tactic, wanting to interact with the kids and using my camera as an icebreaker.
Huaorani still hunt regularly for food, which was one reason we didn’t see much animal life…smart animals were hiding. However, they supplement their yucca/meat diet with rice, salt, and other basics that they can get from the mission or “the bridge.” They have lighters, a couple flashlights, and a few basics like that. The workers at the lodge reportedly asked for Direct TV. Hopefully this won't happen, but it will, someday. We tried to discourage this the best we could, as we would love to do in our own culture as well! The current manager/guide has every intention of protecting them from this as long as possible. Few of these have ever left the jungle, and have only had access to stories or pictures of those who have traveled.
So many, myself included, have been inspired by the missionary story of the 5 martyrs and the subsequent conversions of the Huaorani. We were not in the more Christianized area of the territory so we can’t report on that but the primary evidence we saw of the missionary influence was anger and frustration toward them. Frustration that the oil companies came, that diseases like polio came, and that their traditional way of life was discarded. This was heartbreaking. However, what we learned about the traditional Huaorani culture was very inspiring, as they revealed a capacity for understanding GOD and the way HE reveals Himself through His Creation in a way we could all benefit to learn from. What if we got together as family and all shared the parts of the story we knew with each other, instead of arriving as missionaries with all the answers?
In the book, Through Gates of Splendor, Elisabeth Elliot tells the story of the missionary efforts, and killings. On the 40th anniversary of the missionary deaths, in 1996, she wrote a second epilogue containing further reflections. After our experience with the Huarani, we wrestled more than ever with the missionary impact, and nothing inspired or consoled me more than finding these words written by Elisabeth Elliot, who by the way…is more than ever one of my greatest heroes. If you haven't bought her book yet (you should) read some of her words below:
Perhaps so. Perhaps not. Cause and effect are in God's hands. Is it not the part of faith simply to let them rest there? God is God. I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that He act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice....
For us widows the question as to why the men who had trusted God to be both shield and defender should be allowed to be speared to death was not one that could be smoothly or finally answered in 1956, nor yet silenced in 1996.... I believe with all my heart that God's Story has a happy ending....But not yet, not necessarily yet. It takes faith to hold on to that in the face of the great burden of experience, which seems to prove otherwise. What God means by happiness and goodness is a far higher thing than we can conceive....
The massacre was a hard fact.... It was interpreted according to the measure of one's faith or faithlessness - full of meaning or empty. A triumph or a tragedy. An example of brave obedience or a case of fathomless foolishness. The beginning of a great work, and demonstration of the power of God, a sorrowful first act that would lead to a beautifully predictable third act in which all puzzles would be solved, God would vindicate Himself, Waoranis would be converted, and we could all 'feel good' about our faith...But the danger lies in seizing upon the immediate and hoped-for, as though God's justice is thereby verified, and glossing over as neatly as possible certain other consequences, some of them inevitable, others simply the result of a botched job. In short, in the Waorini story as in other stories, we are consoled as long as we do not examine too closely the unpalatable data. By this evasion we are willing still to call the work 'ours,' to arrogate to ourselves whatever there is of success, and to deny all failure.
A healthier faith seeks a reference point outside all human experience, the Polestar which marks the course of all human events, not forgetting that impenetrable mystery of the interplay of God's will and man's....
I think back to the five men themselves, remembering Pete's agony of indecision as to whether he should join the others in the venture; Ed's eagerness to go even though Marilou was eight months pregnant, his strong assurance that all would be well; Roj's depression and deep sense of failure as a missionary; Nate's extreme caution and determination; Jim's nearly reckless exuberance.
I think of the tensions that developed after the men died among those who had to try to 'pick up the pieces' of the work they had left behind. There was misunderstanding between some of the mission boards as to what part each was to play in continuing efforts to reach the Waoranis.
I think of how, when Rachel and I finally arrived in the Waorani's jungle clearing, we found that what she and Dayuma had been using as the Waorini language was not readily understood. Dayuma had forgotten a large part of it, and had unwittingly jumbled up Waorani, Quichua, a smattering of Spanish, and a little English intonation for good measure. Then gradually I saw, to my dismay, that Rachel's approach to linguistic work, her interpretation of what the Indians did and said, and the resulting reports she sent out were often radically different from my own.
I think of the Indians themselves - what bewilderment, what inconvenience, what disorientation, what uprooting, what actual disease (polio, for example) they suffered because we missionaries got to them at last! The skeptic points with glee to such woeful facts and we dodge them nimbly, fearing any assessment of the work that may cast suspicion at least on the level of our spirituality if not the validity of our faith.
But we are sinners. And we are buffoons....It is not the level of our spirituality that we can depend on. It is God and nothing less than God, for the work is God's and the call is God's and everything is summoned by Him and to His purposes, the whole scene, the whole mess, the whole package - our bravery and our cowardice, our love and our selfishness, our strengths and our weaknesses. The God who could take a murderer like Moses and an adulterer like David and a traitor like Peter and make them strong servants of His is a God who can also redeem savage Indians, using as the instruments of His peace a conglomeration of sinners who sometimes look like heroes and sometimes like villains, for 'we are no better than pots of earthenware to contain the treasure [the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ], and this proves that such transcendent power does not come from us, but is God's alone.'" (2 Cor. 4:7 NEB)
- Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, Epilogue '96