This is another of my favorite missionary stories and another one that leads to a reaching toward the Kleenex box. Nate Saint is a well-known missionary from modern times. His son, Steve who shared the anecdote below, is fairly well-known too.
About 10 years ago, I was blessed while representing our mission organization at an annual missions conference at Cedarville University to view a pre-release version of a documentary entitled “Beyond the Gates of Splendor.” It left me in tears. I think there were about 200 of us in that comfortable movie room who were all dabbing at runny eyes. I eventually purchased my own DVD copy of this film which relates the story of the “Auca Five” from the 1950’s all the way to the early 2000’s.
The testimony of the Auca Five has caused the tears of literally millions of believers over the past few decades. Their commitment and selfless sacrifice strengthens our resolve to truly “count the cost” and to follow Christ with an eye toward eternity and an eye toward the cross, a hand to the plow and a hand to the seed of Good News, a leg toward reachingthe lost and a leg toward the finish line of our heavenly race, an ear toward the human plea for the truth and an ear toward the heavenly trump which we anxiously await to hear. If you’ve only heard the story of Nate Saint, you might be surprised to read this account by his son, Steve.
BTW, I created a draft of this post on March 1st and am just able tonight to publish it. I couldn’t have known that on that very day, Dayuma, the first believer among the tribe that Nate Saint and the others tried to reach, passed into the presence of our Lord. See this link for more on that story. She too risked her life for the Gospel as she counted the cost, took up her cross, and followed Jesus amidst a treacherous and murderous tribe…her own. Praise God for His amazing grace and mercy and for the boldness of saints…and Saints…to take His love to the “ends of the earth.”
In Timbuktu, A Faith Worth Dying For
(How My Dad’s Faith Was Given Back to Me)
For years I thought Timbuktu was a made-up name for “the ends of the earth.”
When I found out it is a real place, I developed a fascination for it.
During a fact-finding trip to West Africa for Mission Aviation Fellowship in 1986 this fascination became an irresistible urge. Timbuktu wasn’t on my itinerary, but I was going anyway.
I hitched a ride from Bamako, Mali, 500 miles away, on a small plane chartered by UNICEF. Two doctors were in Timbuktu and might fly back on the return flight. That meant I could be bumped – I decided to take the chance.
Westerners Don’t Last Long in the Desert
When we landed, I stood by the plane on the windswept outskirts of the famous Berber outpost. There was not a spot of true green anywhere in the Saharan landscape. Dust blotted out the sun. I squinted in the 110 degree heat, trying to make out the mud-walled buildings of Timbuktu.
The pilot approached me as I started for town. “The doctors are on their way,” he said. “You’ll have to find another ride back to Bamako. Try the marketplace. Someone there might have a truck. But be careful. Westerners don’t last long in the desert if the truck breaks down.”
Perhaps it was fitting, I thought, that I should wind up like this surrounded by the Sahara. Since I had arrived in Africa, the harsh environment and severe suffering of the starving people had left me feeling lost in a spiritual and emotional desert.
The open-air marketplace in the center of town was crowded. The men and women wore flowing robes and turbans as protection against the sun. Most of the Berbers’ robes were dark blue.
The men were well armed with scimitars and knives. I felt their suspicious eyes. It was understandable. Timbuktu had once been prosperous and self-sufficient. Now people couldn’t be trusted here. Drought had turned rich grasslands to desert. Unrelenting sun and windstorms had nearly annihilated animal life and people were dying by thousands.
Does Anyone Speak English?
I went from person to person trying to find someone who spoke English. I finally came across a local policeman who understood my broken French.
“ I need a truck,” I said. “I need to go to Bamako.” His eyes widened. “No truck.” He shrugged. Then he added, “No road, only sand.”
My presence was causing a sensation in the marketplace. I was surrounded by at least a dozen small children jumping and dancing, begging for coins and souvenirs. The situation was extreme. I tried to think calmly. What was I to do?
I wanted to talk to my father. He had known what it was like to be a foreigner in a strange land. But my father, Nate Saint, was dead.
Killed by the Auca Indians
He was one of five missionary men killed by the Auca Indians (also known as the Huaorani) in the jungles of Ecuador in 1956.
I was only four then, and my memories of him were like movie clips; a lanky, intense man with a serious goal and a quick wit. He flew missionaries and medical personnel in his Piper airplane. Even after his death my father was a presence in my life.
I’d wanted to talk with him before, especially since becoming a father myself. But in recent weeks this need had become urgent. For one thing, I was new to relief work. But it was more than that – I needed Dad to answer my new questions of faith.
In Mali, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were hostile to the Christian faith. It was a parallel to the situation Dad had faced in Ecuador. Just like my dad, I said, “My God is real, He lives inside me. I have a very special one-on-one relationship.” Yet the question lingered in my mind: Did my father have to die?
People spoke of Dad with respect: a man willing to die for his faith. I couldn’t help but think the murders in Ecuador were an accident of bad timing. The missionaries had landed just as a small band of Auca men were in a bad mood for reasons that had nothing to do with faith or Americans.
If Dad’s plane had landed one day later, the massacre might not have happened. It had made little impact on the Aucas. To them it was just one in a history of killings. Thirty years later it still had an impact on me.
God, Please Keep Me Safe!
Now I felt threatened because of who I was and what I believed.
“God,” I prayed as I looked around the marketplace. “I’m in trouble here. Please keep me safe and show me a way to get back. Please reveal Yourself and Your love to me the way You did to my father.” No bolt of lightning came from the blue, but a new thought did come to mind. There must be a telecommunications office here. I could wire Bamako to send another plane. It would cost, but I could see no other way of getting out.
“Where’s the telecommunication office?” I asked the policeman. He gave me directions, then said, “Telegraph transmits only if station in Bamako has machine on, message goes through. If not…” He shrugged. “No answer ever come. You only hope message received.”
Truly the Last Outpost of the World
If I couldn’t make arrangements by nightfall, what would happen? This was truly that last outpost in the world. Several westerners had disappeared in the desert without a trace.
Then I remembered that just before I’d started for Timbuktu a fellow worker had said, “there’s a famous mosque in Timbuktu. It was build from mud in the 1500’s. Many Islamic pilgrims visit it every year. But there’s also a tiny Christian church, which no one visits.”
I asked the children, “Where is l’Eglise Evangelique Christienne?” The youngsters were willing to show me the way, though they were obviously confused about what I was looking for. Elderly men and women scolded them harshly as we passed, but they persisted.
Finally we arrived at the open doorway of a tiny mud-brick house. No one was home but on the wall opposite the door hung a poster showing a cross covered by wounded hands. The French subscript said “and by His stripes we are healed.”
My army of waifs pointed out a young man who was approaching us in the dirt alley, then melted back into the labyrinth of the walled alleys and compounds of Timbuktu. There was something inexplicably different about the handsome young man with dark skin and flowing robes. His name was Nouh Ag Infa Yatara.
Nouh signaled he knew someone who could translate for us in a compound on the edge of town. An American missionary lived there, so we went there.
The moment I first saw Nouh I had the feeling that we shared something in common. I asked, “How did you come to have faith?” The missionary began to translate.
God’s Promises from the Bible
“This missionary compound has always had a beautiful garden,” he responded. “When I was a small boy, a friend and I decided to steal some carrots. It was dangerous. We’d been told that Toubabs (white men) eat children. I was caught by the former missionary here, Mr. Marshall. He didn’t eat me, instead he gave me the carrots and some cards that had God’s promises from the Bible written on them. He said that if I learned them, he’d give me an ink pen!”
“You learned them?” “Oh, yes! But the problem was that only government men had a Bic pen! So when I showed off my pen at school, the teacher knew I must have spoken with a Toubab, which was strictly forbidden. He severely beat me.”
When Nouh’s parents found that he had portions of such a despised book defiling their house, they threw him out and forbade anyone to take him in. He was not allowed back in school. But something had happened. Nouh had come to believe that what the Bible said was true.
Nouh’s mother was desperate. The family’s character was in jeopardy. Finally she decided to kill her son. She obtained poison from a sorcerer. Nouh was invited to a special family feast where his mother poisoned him.
Nouh wasn’t affected. But his brother, who stole a morsel of meat from the deadly dish, became violently ill and remains partially paralyzed. Seeing God’s intervention, the family and the townspeople were afraid to make further attempts on his life, but condemned him as an outcast.
After sitting a moment, I asked Nouh the question that earlier I’d wanted to ask my father: “Why is your faith so important to you that you’re willing to give up everything, perhaps even your life?”
“I know God loves me and I’ll live with Him forever. Now I have peace where I used to be full of uncertainty,” Nouh said. “ Who wouldn’t give up everything for this peace and security?”
“It couldn’t have been easy for you to take a stand that made you despised by the whole community,” I said. “Where did your courage come from?”
A Book About Five Young Men
“Mr. Marshall couldn’t take me in without putting my life in jeopardy. He gave me some books about Christians who’d suffered for their faith. My favorite book was one about five young men who risked their lives to take God’s good news to Stone Age Indians in the jungles of South America. I’ve lived all my life in the desert. How frightening the jungle must be. The book said these men let themselves be speared to death, even though they could have killed their attackers!”
Our missionary translator remembered the story too. “As a matter of fact, one of those men had your last name,” he said to me.
“Yes,” I said quietly, “the pilot was my father.”
“Your father?” Nouh cried. The story is true!” “Yes,” I said, “it’s true.”
The missionary and Nouh and I talked through the afternoon. Then, when they accompanied me back to airfield that night, we found that the doctors weren’t able to leave Timbuktu after all. There was room for me on the UNICEF plane!
As Nouh and I hugged each other, it seemed incredible that God loves us so much that He’d arranged for us to meet “at the ends of the earth.”
Dad’s Faith was Given Back to Me
Nouh and I had gifts for each other that no one else could give.
I gave him the assurance that the story that had given him courage was true. He, in turn, gave the assurance that God had used Dad’s death for good.
Dad, by dying, had helped give Nouh a faith worth dying for. And Nouh, in return, had helped give Dad’s faith back to me.
by Steve Saint
Used by permission.
Source: 2001 ‘Into All the World’’ The Great Commission Opportunities Handbook