Standing by Stephenie's hospital bedside, hovering over her lifeless body, Saint stood at a major decision point in his life.
"I saw her lying there," he recalls. "I really believed that if I would just pray and beg the Lord to restore her, He would have. But I couldn't bring myself to do it because I've seen through things like my dad dying that things that seem tragic, God uses for His own purposes."
If you ask Saint how he would want his life's story to read, he admits that this would not have been his first choice. But, he adds, "I never supposed that I should have written the story. What I needed to do was let the Lord write the story.
"I'm the steward and servant, not the CEO of my life. I had to wrestle with the question, 'Do I want it to be my way or God's way?'"
Saint learned early in life that God's way can be painful at times.
It began in 1956, when his father journeyed to meet the Aucas or "naked savages" (as the Waodani were then known) in the jungles of Ecuador.
With a homicide rate of 60 percent, the tribe was renown for their habitual killing, even within their own tribe. Nate and four other missionaries had spent months preparing--dropping gifts and supplies, establishing a good rapport and praying--for their encounter with the Aucas. They were hopeful that their efforts would help connect this isolated tribe to the outside world that was clashing with them and more importantly, the gospel.
The missionaries' families waited anxiously by a small short-wave radio at the base camp for news of the contact. But they only heard an eerie silence. Little did they know that their loved ones--Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully and Peter Fleming--would never be heard from again.
It took five days for a ground crew to recover the bodies, which had been pierced by Auca spears.
The story spread quickly through the secular press with gripping stories in Reader's Digest and Life. But Steve Saint is the first to tell you that the story didn't end on that fateful day 45 years ago.
Within three years of the killings, Nate Saint's sister, Rachel Saint, and Elisabeth Elliot, widow of Jim Elliot, moved into the rain forest to live with the tribe. Slowly, many of the tribesmen in the contact group converted to Christianity--including those who had killed the missionaries.
Instead of hating or fearing the Aucas, Steve grew up loving the tribe and forming a life-long relationship with them. At 14, he was baptized by Kimo, one of his father's attackers, in the same river where his father was killed.
Today, the Waodani, or "the people" as they call themselves are known as a peaceful community free of the violent and murderous stigma that plagued them for years. Of the 1,800 Waodoni, approximately one out of six are believers. It's a rich legacy, but one that has not come without a cost.
Looking back on the original contact, Saint observes: "I don't think God allowed my dad and his friends to be killed. I think He orchestrated it with five men that gave their lives to Him. Bad things don't come from God, but sometimes they seem bad. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."
When asked how Saint forgave the tribesmen who murdered his father, he offers a shocking response: "The truth is I never did."
He says it never occurred to him that he needed to forgive them. He believes that forgiveness is something someone can do, but it can also be a heritage.
"My mother lost a husband, provider and companion, but I never saw her angry or upset," he recalls. "[My aunt] Rachel was living with the tribe, and I never heard her mention the people in any other way but that they were family, and she loved them."
If forgiveness is indeed a heritage, then it's one that has been passed down to Nate's grandchildren. Jesse, Steve's son, says that he has never felt anything but love toward the Waodani. He knows most of the men involved in the 1956 killing and describes them as "his closest friends in the tribe."
"I think this is because they love me more, because they were more involved, and also because they are the strongest Christians," Jesse says. "They are all just so kind and loving that I can't help but love them like they were all grandfathers to me."
Steps of Faith
Even though forgiveness came quickly for Saint, obedience to God's plan did not.
When his Aunt Rachel died in 1994, Steve returned to the Amazon for the funeral. During his visit, the tribal elders insisted that Steve and his family come to live with them--not as missionaries, but as "one of them."
Saint resisted. A successful entrepreneur and businessman in his mid-40s, he had spent years developing a successful lime rock mining business in central Florida. He had a wife and four children. Wouldn't it be more practical to financially support someone who could live and work with the tribe?
"It seemed ridiculous for me to go to the jungles," he recalls. "I was a businessman, and I knew I had to have a five-year plan. I couldn't imagine what I or God was going to do."
But the tribal elders persisted. And after much prayer, Saint decided to follow in his father's footsteps. "It was the biggest step of faith I had ever made," Saint says.
In June 1995, he and his family packed up "just the necessities" and headed to Ecuador. Upon arriving, the Saint family constructed a primitive house. Among the tribe, privacy was nonexistent. The jungle quickly became the family's grocery store.
It didn't take long for the tribe to fall in love with Steve's wife, Ginny, who quickly adapted to the tribal living. Jesse, Steve's son, even describes the time in the jungles as a "Swiss Family Robinson experience."
Shortly after arriving, Steve began working with the tribal elders to strengthen and equip the tribe to handle mounting development pressures from the outside world. For more than 40 years, outsiders had been furnishing the Waodani with transportation, teachers in their schools and many of their supplies.
"The Waodani had been spectators," Steve explains. "They didn't want to be spectators. They realized that while people were coming into the tribe, no one was living with them to teach the next generation to 'walk God's trail' as they called it."
Steve began teaching the tribe how to run their own store. Eventually, the Waodani had their own pharmacy, trading post and unique aircraft.
By 1996, the tribe had vastly improved its structure and vision for the future. Steve and the tribesman also began an organization, Indigenous People's Technology and Education Center (I-TEC), to design special solar-powered dental equipment for the tribe. Equipped with aircraft and dental equipment, the Waodani believers hope to share the gospel with all 23 villages of their tribe.
After a year and a half with the tribe, the Saints began to recognize the tribe was becoming too dependent on them. In order to preserve the Waodani, the family returned to the States.
Looking back on the time with the tribe, plus five years working with them on the outside, Saint says he learned a lot about missions. He says that the hardest part of his journey has been coming to grips with the fact that much of missions in the past century goes beyond what God has called Christians to do and in the process has become counterproductive.
"It's taken me three years to get over the anger and resentment I've felt," he admits. "The purpose of missions is to plant the indigenous church, not to be the church or govern the church."
The lessons Steve learned are woven into the vision of I-TEC. The foundation's mission is to equip tribes, such as the Waodani, with tools that will enable them to reach their own people and fulfill Christ's Great Commission. I-TEC is in the process of developing relationships with dozens of other hidden people groups around the world, who will benefit from similar training and tools.
Saint hopes that I-TEC and other organizations will embrace the concept of training and equipping native people rather than perpetually doing things for them.
"When properly planted, the indigenous church will be self-propagating, self-funding and self-governing. And until that takes place, we have not done what we've been commissioned to do."
The Real Author
Jim Elliot, who was martyred along with Saint's father, has a famous saying that Christians today still quote: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
Looking back over his life--the loss of his father, the sudden death of his daughter--Saint has certainly found those words to be true.
And while he somberly admits that he is brokenhearted over his losses, Saint says he is "content in the confidence that this is only the opening exercises." There is a greater reward waiting for those who dare to answer God's call.
"Most think that it's OK to go with God's program as long as it fits their program," Saint says, "but I finally decided that I wanted God to write the story, because I know that it will come out best in the end that way." NM
Margaret Feinberg is a free-lance writer and a regular contributor to New Man.teve Saint is no stranger to loss. He was only 5 years old when he learned that his father, famed missionary Nate Saint, had been speared to death by tribesmen in the jungles of Ecuador. Last year he faced every parent's worst nightmare. Less than nine hours after his daughter, Stephenie, returned home from a yearlong missions trip around the United States, India and the Caribbean, she had a sudden cerebral hemorrhage and died.