‘End of the Spear’ events recalled
"For whosoever shall save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it." -- Mark 8:35
Fifty years ago, missionary Frank Drown went on a wholly unexpected mission in the jungles of Ecuador: to find the bodies of five other missionaries, his friends.
The men had gone to try to establish contact with the Auca tribe of the violent Waodani Indians, known for their "kill or be killed" way of life, and the men had not returned as scheduled.
Drown had been in Ecuador for 10 years and was selected to lead a party of fellow missionaries and Ecuadoran soldiers to find the men. Upon arriving at the river beach where the five men had landed their plane, Drown's worst fears were confirmed.
"When I got there and I saw those men, and they were dead, and they were in bad shape," Drown said, "it really made me cry, that I wasn't going to bring those men home to their wives."
Drown retold his story, now part of the major motion picture "The End of the Spear," in two services Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Shawnee, part of the church's missions week.
Some might say that the loss of his friends' life was a waste, but Drown said he knows better.
"God has spoken through the death of these men to all of us," Drown said.
Drown remembers the day in 1955 when Nate Saint came to him and told him he wanted to try to reach to the Auca.
Drown and his wife and children had already been in Ecuador for several years, living with a peaceful tribe about 100 miles away from the Auca. The Auca were considered unreachable, however. Their culture dictated that outsiders should be speared on site, and killing was an acceptable outcome of fighting even amongst themselves.
"They'd get angry, and if somebody didn't do what they wanted, they'd kill them," Drown said.
The fierceness of the Waodani even caused Shell Oil Co. to abandon plans to drill for oil in their lands.
But Saint told Drown that he couldn't sleep at night, knowing that the tribe was living so violently without the Gospel. He formulated a plan to take a plane and fly over the tribe in a circle, a pattern that would allow him to safely drop a gift-filled basket at the end of a long rope as a sign of friendship.
For 13 weeks, Saint and four others did this, and Drown said they received many signs of friendship in return. The Auca even built a tower of sorts so they could wave to the airplane pilot.
Encouraged by this, the men decided to try to land on a beach next to the Curraray River to speak with the tribe. On Jan. 6, 1956, their first attempt was successful, and they peacefully greeted some tribe members.
Saint and missionaries Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming and Roger Youderian made a second attempt two days later, but this time, they were attacked. Drown said he later learned that a tribe member, angry at others in the tribe, had told the tribe that the foreigners had tried to kill him.
He also learned how hard his friends had fought for their lives; the Auca had had to spear the men several times in order to kill them.
A day after Nate Saint was supposed to check in at the missionary base by radio, his wife, Marj, came to Drown and asked him to go search for her husband and the others. Drown, father of five, checked with his wife first.
"She said 'Anything you can do to help those men, you go do it,'" Drown said.
Drown gathered up more than 20 Ecuadorian troops and several missionaries and marched through the jungle for miles. The reached the river and borrowed five canoes from another friendly tribe. He wisely spaced the canoes out as they paddled downriver, trying to make it appear a whole army was coming to the Aucas.
"I know they never fought unless they had the upper hand," Drown said.
When the search party reached the beach, they found Saint's plane torn to shreds and the radio smashed.
"When I saw that, I felt so bad," Drown said. "I thought 'the men are not alive, because they wouldn't have let that happen.'"
A U.S. military helicopter came to aid the search for the men, and from its higher vantage, the military crew confirmed Drown's fears -- they saw a leg in the river. The missionaries pulled two of the men's bodies from the water.
The helicopter then reported a third body downriver, and Drown, who had not helped with the first two, decided he must go see the third.
"So I went, and it was Nate Saint," Drown said. "There he was with a great big spear right here in his head," pointing to his temple.
At 83, Drown's voice still breaks when he retells the story of finding his friends, but he is able to move on because he knows the meaning his friends' deaths had.
Two years after their deaths, Saint's sister, Rachel, and eventually his wife and his son, as well, were able to reach and live among the Aucas, with the help of a translator, Dayumae, who had run away from the tribe as a child to live among the missionaries.
"They wanted badly to finish what Nate started and take them the Gospel," Drown said.
The Saints did help many of the tribe members become Christian, and the tribe decided to give up their warring ways. Mincayani, one of the men who participated in the spearing of the missionaries, even became a missionary himself.
With their new, peaceful ways, the Waodani, once on the brink of extinction because they had killed so many in their own tribe, have multiplied to almost 40,000.
Drown and his wife remained in Ecuador another 27 years and now live in Independence, Mo. They have written a book, "Mission to the Headhunters," to tell their story.
With the release of the movie, Drown said more people will learn that his friends did not die in vain; that their deaths meant much more.
"Most Americans say 'You fools, you wasted good lives,'" Drown said. "... It was God's plan that these men die, so that it would speak to the world in our day."