Mysterious ways

A story of unquestioning faith

A single image in Matt McCully's photo album speaks volumes about his July 2000 trip to Ecuador.

In the posed, 4-by-6-inch picture the 1978 Puget Sound graduate stands with his arm around Mincaye, one of the now-aging Waodani warriors who killed McCully's father and four other young missionaries in 1956.

Both men, whose lives were forever changed by the massacre, are smiling.

The death of the missionaries—Ed McCully, Jim Elliot, Peter Fleming, Nate Saint, and Roger Youderian—made the cover of Life magazine and captured headlines around the world. In the annals of mission history, few modern events are as memorable and recognizable to Christians.

“Throughout my life, many people from my parents’ generation and my grandparents’ generation have told me that they vividly remember when it happened,” Matt says. “And many of them say it had a great impact on their lives.”

Answering the call
Matt’s father, Ed, had been a track and football star at Wheaton College in Illinois , was president of his senior class, and winner of a national oratory contest. He had planned a career as an attorney, but after a year of law school felt that God was calling him to become a missionary. In December of 1952, along with Matt’s mother, Marilou, and their 8-month-old son, Steve, they sailed for Ecuador , where they began working with the Quechua Indians in a small village on the outskirts of the jungle.

There, Ed and Marilou joined forces with four other missionary families who had plans to take the gospel to the Waodani, an isolated tribe that lived on the eastern flank of the Andes mountains in the heart of Ecuador ’s dense rain forest.

The Waodani were infamous for their dangerous ways. Anthropologists who studied the tribe called it the most violent group they had ever seen; six of every 10 Waodani adults died due to homicide. Neighboring tribes, as well as oil company workers in the region, feared the Waodani. Outsiders called them the Aucas, a Quechua word meaning “naked savages.”

But the missionaries had hope of peaceful contact, largely because of their acquaintance with Dayuma, a Waodani girl who had fled the tribe after her family had been killed. Through Dayuma, the missionaries were able to learn enough of the Waodani language to initiate contact.

In September of 1955, the men located a Waodani settlement from the air, and for three months regularly flew over the village in Nate Saint’s bush plane, using a loudspeaker to call out friendly greetings and lowering a bucket to deliver presents. Eventually the Waodani reciprocated by leaving gifts of their own in the bucket—a wooden headband, a parrot, carved combs, peanuts, and other trinkets—and the missionaries thought the time seemed right to make ground contact. Mindful of the Waodani’s reputation, they took precautions. They packed guns and arranged a schedule of radio contacts with their wives.

On Tuesday, January 3, 1956 , the men set up camp along the Curaray River , a few miles from the Indian settlement. Several days later, three Waodani—one man and two women—came out of the jungle and spent the day with the men, riding in the plane and sharing their food. There was no indication of what was to come.

On Sunday, January 8, the appointed time for a radio contact with the missionary base came and went with no word. The wives at first held out hope that the radio had broken, but a search the next day found the plane and campsite had been torn apart. A ground party was quickly organized, including Ecuadorian soldiers, Quechuas, and other missionaries in the area. It was soon confirmed that all five missionaries had been speared to death at their camp. A bullet hole was found in the plane, but there were no fallen Waodani. The missionaries apparently had used their weapons only to fire warning shots.

Ed McCully’s body was seen and identified, but later swept away by the river. The other four, at the request of their wives, were buried where they fell.

Completing the mission
But that blood-soaked beach is not where the story ends. The families, though staggered, recovered quickly to carry on the work. Within two years, sensing that the tribe might eventually kill itself off if it did not change its ways, several more of the Waodani women left to seek help from “the foreigners.” Jim Elliot’s widow, Elisabeth, and Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel, and the Waodani women, were able to take the message of the gospel to the entire tribe.

Miraculously, the brutal killings which had been integral to the tribe for generations, stopped almost immediately. And those who led the killing party that fateful day, three of whom are still living, became leaders of the Waodani church.

Nate Saint’s son, Steve, and Mincaye now travel around the world to tell of the tribe’s transformation. Mincaye says he and his people have learned about “God’s Carvings” (the Bible) and how they now walk “His trail” (God’s way).

“I think it really is an extraordinary example of God’s power to transform people’s lives,” Matt says. “And it’s a story of the great faith of those families, who loved God and never questioned his providence.”

He shows a photo taken a few days after the massacre. Tired and visibly pregnant (with Matt), his mother is standing onboard an airplane, her hand against her forehead, while a crowd of Quechua Indians watches sadly as she prepares to leave.

“I asked my mom one time, ‘Do you remember what was going through your mind at that moment?’” Matt says. “I think a lot of people might have said something like, ‘How can I go on?’ but she told me she just kept thinking: ‘These poor people. Who will help them now?’ Here she was, just 27 years old, with a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old and eight months pregnant with another, her husband had just been killed, and she was worried about the Quechua. I just think that really shows what remarkable character my mom and the rest of those women had. They lived their faith, and it made an enormous difference in the lives of many people.”

Meeting the tribe
Rachel Saint lived with the Waodani until her death in 1994, and then Steve Saint, along with his family, moved to the jungle to work with the tribe. It was Steve Saint who arranged for the McCully family to travel to Ecuador to meet the tribe.

“I knew this was something I had to do, that I really wanted to do,” Matt says. “Although I never met my dad, this incident, these people had shaped my life in so many ways. And of course my daughters knew the story so well that they also were eager to go.”

Joining Matt on the trip were daughters, Abby, then age 17, and Brooke, then 14; both his brothers, Steve and Mike, and their families; and 13 other aunts, uncles, and cousins.

“We were excited but not nervous about meeting the Waodani,” Matt explains. “We knew they were not the same people who had killed so indiscriminately. But we were nervous about living in the jungle for 10 days.”

In fact, a paralyzing fear of snakes is one of the reasons Char, Matt’s wife of 27 years, stayed home. “We really missed her, but there were many times we were glad for her sake that she wasn’t there,” he says.

The family flew from Seattle to Miami to Quito , and then rode a bus for 10 hours to Arajuno, the village on the edge of the jungle where the McCullys had been missionaries to the Quechuas (and where two schools now are named for Ed and Marilou McCully.)

From there it was a short flight in a Cessna Stationair, from one muddy runway to another, into the village of Tonyapari, and finally a three-hour canoe ride to the Waodani village.

“I’ll never forget coming around the bend in the river and seeing the thatched huts and the people, these people who I had heard so much about,” Matt says. “Emotionally, it was very overwhelming. I searched the faces of the men and wondered: ‘Is he one of the killers? Is this the man who killed my dad?’”

It didn’t take long for the two groups to feel comfortable with each other.

“To meet the Waodani, you can hardly imagine that they were once capable of living so brutally,” Matt says. “They are such kind and loving people, they made us feel right at home from the start.”

Through his contact with the tribe and his mastery of their language, Steve Saint has been able to learn what led to the attack on the beach that day, as well as details of the killing. Naturally fearful of outsiders anyway, the tribe was spurred to a killing frenzy when the Waodani man who had visited the missionaries on Friday returned to the tribe and told them the “foreigners” had tried to kill him.

Six tribal warriors and a few of the women returned to the beach on Sunday morning with spears, axes, and machetes and ambushed the missionaries. Mincaye, a young man of about 20 at the time, delivered the fateful blows to Ed McCully.

“I never felt comfortable using the word ‘murder’ to describe what happened,” says Matt. “To me, a murderer is someone who is accountable to the same laws, who has the same understanding of right and wrong as we do. At that time, the Waodani society clearly lived with a different understanding.

“So I never felt as though I had to forgive Mincaye or the others. We’re all just men in need of love and grace and forgiveness, with a God who offers that to us in great abundance. That’s the message that the missionaries wanted to bring to the Waodani.”

The 10-day trip, which Matt calls “cathartic,” was a series of deeply emotional moments, including:

The visit to the beach where the men were killed.

His brothers being reunited with the Quechua woman who helped care for them when they were toddlers.

Meeting Dabo, the oldest in the tribe and one of the few who opposed killing the missionaries.

Hearing the women who witnessed the attacks recall what they saw that day.

And, “perhaps the highlight of the trip,” according to Matt, “standing along with Mincaye as we baptized Abby, right there in the same river where her grandfather’s blood flowed 44 years earlier.

“The trip affected us all in different ways, and Abby felt like that was a good place and time to be baptized,” says Matt. “She grew very close to Mincaye during our stay. He is a warm and likeable person and she wanted him to be a part of this important time for her.”

There were other memorable moments, too. Eating monkey meat (“pretty salty”) and tapir (“tastes like chicken, of course”). Trying not to faint when a deadly coral snake crossed the path about five yards in front of the group. And learning to throw a spear and shoot a blow gun.

“That probably sounds strange, considering my dad was killed with a spear, but to me it was about experiencing what these people do and how they live,” he says, noting that one of the spears used in the killing of the missionaries is now one of his most prized possessions. The spear had been given to his mother when she returned to Ecuador shortly after the massacre.

“We found the spear in my mom’s garage when we helped her move about 12 years ago,” Matt remembers. “I asked her if I could have it, and she gave it to me. For me, it’s representative of such an important part of our family’s history. If someone comes into my home and isn’t sure if the killing is something we’re comfortable talking about, I think seeing the spear would erase any doubt.”

Coming full circle
After the missionaries were killed, Marilou McCully returned to her family’s home in Michigan for Matt’s birth. She spent the next several months traveling around the country to different church groups, telling the story of what had happened, speaking more than 100 times. Eight months later the family returned to Ecuador , where she ran a home for missionaries’ children for six years.

In 1963, she moved her family to Federal Way, Wash. , to be near Ed’s family, and worked for many years as a bookkeeper at Auburn General Hospital .

Although some of the missionaries’ nine children have gone into mission work, Matt opted to study at Puget Sound . He cherishes his college memories, including writing for The Trail, working as the sports information director, and playing on the basketball team that won the 1976 NCAA Division II national championship.

“I gave myself the nickname ‘The Judge,’” he jokes, “because I spent four years on the bench. But I loved basketball, and loved being a part of the program.”

Matt’s first post-graduation job was as a sportswriter for The Wenatchee World, but for the past 18 years he has been an air traffic controller. He teaches Sunday school at Grace Community Church in Auburn, and dotes on his 3-year-old grandson, Jackson Matthew.

“The McCullys are doing fine,” proclaims the Enumclaw, Wash., resident.

In April of this year, after battling cancer on and off for 16 years, Marilou McCully died. More than 500 people, including three of the other widows (Elisabeth Elliot was too ill to travel), attended her memorial service.

And last month, Matt’s brothers, Steve and Mike, returned to the jungle to bring the story full circle: They spread their mother’s ashes on the beach where Ed was killed.

Matt doesn’t think he will ever go back.

“For me it was an amazing thing, something that had a very profound affect on me, and something I’m very thankful for,” he says. “I’m glad I was able to connect with my family’s history, but the emotional aspect was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Meeting the people and seeing the places I’d read about and been told about was so intense, I worry a return trip might not be as powerful. For now, I’m glad for the memories and experiences I’ve had. I don’t need to go again.”

For More Information
Elisabeth Elliot, widow of Jim Elliot, has written three books related to the 1956 killings: Through Gates of Splendor, relives the days leading up to and after the attack. Shadow of the Almighty tells the story of Jim Elliot’s life. The Savage My Kinsman details Elisabeth’s first year living with the tribesmen who killed her husband. and offer updates and previews of a documentary and film about the missionary massacre.

This story was reported by Mary Boone.