Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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A Difficult Day and a Sovereign God

Dannah Gresh: It was Christmas 1955. Five missionary couples met to plan and pray about how to reach a savage tribe in the jungles of Ecuador. One wife expressed her concern.

Valerie Elliot Shepard: It might have been Marge who said to the men, “You know, you all might be killed.” I think it was Nate who said, “We’re ready to die, but these Aucus are not, so we need to go.” 

Dannah: We’ll hear from the daughter of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot today. This is the Revive Our Hearts podcast, with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Choosing Forgiveness, for February 10, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh.

Before we begin, I have just a note for the parents of little ones. If you’re aware of the martyrdom of the five missionaries in Ecuador in 1956, today’s interview includes a brief mention of how they passed away. You’ll have to decide if your child needs to be kept busy elsewhere, or not. Nancy?

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Some of you are going to be very excited when you hear who our guest is today, because she’s like . . . well, a friend you’ve had for a very long time. You’re going to say, “Yes! I’m so glad to get to hear her voice again!” 

And then some others are going to be thinking, “I don’t think I’ve heard that voice before. That voice is new to me, that name is new to me, that story is new to me.” Whether you’re new--or you’ve been familiar with this story for a long time--you’re going to love this conversation! 

I’m very excited to introduce today, Valerie Elliot Shepard. For many of our listeners who were Gateway to Joy (Elisabeth Elliot) listeners for years, you know that Val Shepard is the daughter of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. So Val, welcome for the first time to Revive Our Hearts!

Valerie: Thank you so much! It’s a privilege to be here.

Nancy: I don’t know why it took us so long to get you here, but we got a good excuse to get you here when you wrote this book called Devotedly: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. It’s a piece of art! It’s a beautiful book, but it’s a book with a lot of beautiful and rich story-behind-the-story of your parents and their love story.

So thank you for the heart and effort that you’ve put into writing this and offering it to our generation. I’m so grateful for that!

Valerie: I’m just so thankful to the Lord for putting me in that story. I didn’t have a choice, but I’m very amazed at what my parents did and stood for. It was a privilege going through all their letters and journals . . . it really was.

Nancy: We were at dinner together last night with my husband Robert and a friend of yours, and we were just talking about old connections and twists and turns in our individual lives and stories. We keep coming back to this truth that you really can trust God to write your story. 

So many times when we’re in the middle of a scene or a chapter, we’re clueless as to what the big picture is, how it’s unfolding. But we look back with the benefit of hindsight, and we see God really was writing a beautiful story for His glory, even through some of the hard things in that story.

Valerie: Yes. I’m continually amazed and humbled that the Lord gave me those parents. I read their writing and I think, What brains they had! I was just a simple little girl. Betty calls me “jungle girl”—just having fun, and that’s where God put me. The Lord gave me a lot of joy in the midst of a dangerous place.

I think my mother’s example of trusting Him, no matter what the circumstances were, was a huge picture to me (and I wasn’t aware of it) of her trust in God and her serenity, her calmness, her never showing alarm when there might have been a snake or a scorpion. That just presented to me the picture of peace, because God was in charge all the time.

Nancy: Yes. Now, some are listening to us and they’re saying, “What are you talking about . . . scorpions and snakes!?” They’re not familiar with the story. So I want us to just back up. I’m excited about the chance to do this, because your mom and your dad—Jim and Elisabeth Elliot—are, in many people’s minds, heroes of the faith because of their faith in a great God—ordinary people who believed in an extraordinary God. 

Our lives, many of them, have been blessed and challenged and inspired by their story. I was born in 1958. Your dad was martyred in 1956, so I grew up with that story being told and people being inspired by it. But we have, now, a generation with many of whom are not familiar with that story . . . and they need to be!

Hebrews tells us, “remember those who have gone before you,” whose lives have demonstrated faith in God. And there’s a reason to remember them; not because we make them saints any more than we all are saints [Valerie agrees], but because their faith points us to a great God.

So I’d love to just roll back for some who may not be familiar with the story and others who would be glad to hear it again. Valerie, your parents went to college together. We’re going to talk about their love life (we’ll come back to that) and the letters that they’d written. 

They married, and just give us a snapshot sense of what happened once they married, in Ecuador, and leading up to your dad’s death. 

Valerie: Okay. When my father was a junior at Wheaton College, he heard about the Auca Indians in Ecuador. His heart was immediately caught thinking, I need to go to those Indians! I So he began to pray for them. He knew that they were a savage tribe, a primitive tribe. When he and my mother got to know each other, he told her also about the Aucas.

He felt strongly that God was going to send him to unreached people, people that had never heard the gospel. So he was longing for it, and he even said in his journal, “I want to sing over the Aucas.” Meaning, “I hope to bring them to Christ and be able to praise God over their salvation!”

So they fell in love during my mother’s senior year studying Greek together. But he told my mother that even though he loved her, he didn’t think he was going to be able to marry her because he thought God was calling him to the celibate—or single—missionary life. So they both were called to Ecuador, and they arrived two months apart in Quito.

They studied Spanish together for six months and then my father was still on this determined path to go to the Indians. He had been told by a previous missionary that women just didn’t do well in the Amazon jungle, so it was really for men to go to the Indians.

Nancy: Didn’t do well because it was just a rough life?

Valerie: Yes, rough: the heat, the insects, just the difficulties of living in the Amazon jungle. 

Nancy: It wouldn’t be a great place for her, and he could be more effective as a single man, serving the Lord there.

Valerie: Right. But he was very much in love with my mother, and so he had this problem of, “What do I do about this? Has God brought us together? And if He did bring us together, why if I’m not supposed to get married?” But he felt that he should be at least one year among the Quichua Indians, which was where this previous missionary had left his work.

So they went to different groups of Indians after they had learned Spanish, and my mother began working with a completely different language called Tsafiki, a Colorado Indiana language. She was on the western side of the Andes, and he was on the eastern side of the Andes. They spoke sometimes to each other on the radio, and they wrote letters.

Nancy: Of course, there was no texting, no FaceTiming.

Valerie: Right. So they wrote letters, and they wrote amazing letters for five years, previously before that fifth year.

Nancy: We’ll talk more about those letters later this week, but they did marry, and then they had you! So, how did your father learn more about this tribe, the Waodani? (Or, as they were known then, the Aucas?)

Valerie: As my father got to know the Missionary Aviation Fellowship pilot, he asked him if he would fly over the jungle and look for where these Aucas lived. So when Nate Saint found where a little group of Aucas lived (they were nomadic, and they were in little groups all over the jungle) he told my father about it and took him and flew over the little village.

Then they devised a plan. My father had also gotten Pete Fleming, who came to work with him among the Quichuas, and he had gotten Roger Youderian, who worked with another group of Indians, and Ed McCully. He pulled Ed McCully down to Ecuador, telling Ed that he shouldn’t go to law school; he should work as a missionary.

Nancy: He was getting his “band of brothers,” there.

Valerie: Yes, so he had pulled two different people who already had a plan for after college, and that was Pete Fleming and Ed McCully. He told these other four men [Pete, Ed, Roger, and Nate] they needed to start praying for these Auca Indians. So Nate took each of them over the little village, then they devised a plan to drop a gift to the Indians.

After much prayer and talking about how they were going to see these Indians, Nate said, “I can drop a bucket on a cable attached to the plane, with a gift in it. So I’ll take each one of you guys one trip a week over there, and one of you can shout out through a megaphone.”

My father had learned some Auca phrases through Dayuma, who was an Auca woman who had fled the tribe. So each of the men got to fly over to see the Aucas. The Aucas began to expect this little plane, which they called “the yellow bumblebee.” The men would drop a gift, and the Indians began to return a gift to them.

Nancy: So what kind of gifts would these be?

Valerie: A roasted monkey’s paw, a macaw feather crown that they wore.

Nancy: Those were coming from the Indians?

Valerie: Yes. 

Nancy: What kind of gifts were the men dropping?

Valerie: The men were giving just very practical gifts: maybe a steel pot, maybe a penknife. I don’t know all the gifts. I just know that they tried to think of things that the Aucas might enjoy having. The gift exchange continued on for fifteen weeks. Weekly, Nate would try to get a day that the weather was good, that they could fly over.

Then through this megaphone, my father would shout (and he taught the other four men) these phrases in Auca: “We want to be your friends! We want to come see you!” As they shouted that through the megaphone, the plane could go low enough over the clearing that the Aucas could hear these phrases.

After many months of praying for that, and the men meeting together (they were each in a different place in the jungle) . . . Usually at Christmastime or some other times they might meet in Shell Mera, which was where the MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship) base was located. They started expecting that someday they would all go in together to see these Aucas.

It was decided in January 1956 (they were together Christmas of 1955; they all prayed about it) . . . One of the women said, “If you go to these Aucas, they may kill you.” 

Nancy: They were known for . . .

Valerie: They were very savage. They were a primitive, stone-age tribe. They wore no clothes except a string around their waist. And when they had a celebration, they wore this macaw-feather crown. The men eventually landed on the beach in January of 1956 and waited a couple of days. My father had prefabricated a treehouse so they could have safety above the ground.

Four men would sleep while one man sat on the beach, having a watch or a guard, in case of a puma or a jaguar or an anaconda . . . and also not knowing if the Aucas might ambush them. They were known for ambushing. They had decided to take one gun, but they did not want to kill an Auca; they just wanted to . . .

Nancy: They were just trying to be protected. 

Valerie: Yes. They were trying to show that they were going to be peaceful; there was not going to be any conflict. So, two days after they had . . .

Nancy: Now, this beach was how far from the actual tribe, from the village?

Valerie: This beach was probably a couple hours’ walk from this little village. Nate Saint had figured out how to land on a sandy beach of a tributary of the Amazon. He knew this river went towards where the Aucas lived (they lived right along the river also).

So they landed, and they had a great time putting up the treehouse. They were so excited to meet the Aucas! Eventually, three Aucas came out of the jungle on about January 5, I think. They had a friendly meeting, so the men were thrilled! They kept using these same phrases, “We want to get to know you. We want to be your friends.”

They gave these three Aucas hamburgers and lemonade . . . which, of course, the Aucas had never had before, but they seemed to happily eat. The Aucas continued to chatter in their language, not knowing that these white men didn’t know any other phrases except what they had been shouting through the megaphone.

Nancy: Right.

Valerie: They had a very friendly, happy afternoon. One of the things they did was, Nate had made a model plane. He wanted to show them something. By putting sticks in the sand, all five men showed them that these sticks would be like trees. Then this plane would land amongst the trees, it would fall over, it would tumble and crash.

So they were trying to say, “We need you all to build an airstrip. Clear some land so we can land,” just by gesturing. After they fed them, the Aucas left. In fact, the young man asked for a ride in the plane—by gesturing—and Nate took him for a ride. When he flew over their clearing where the Aucas lived, the young man started to open the door to get out!

Nate had to pull him in and say, “No, that won’t work!” I don’t know if they used the megaphone then, but the young man saw the rest of the tribe and was waving at them and they were all waving. So it was a really good and happy thing.

Then they left after they’d eaten, as it got dark. The five missionary men continued to pray that there would be another friendly meeting. They thought this was really quite a victory that they’d had, because the Auca were known to just kill anybody that came into their territory. They had killed a few Shell Oil workers a few years before this.

The Quichuas—a bigger Indian tribe throughout the jungle—were very afraid of the Aucas. They called them, “Auca,” meaning “savage” in their language. That’s where that name came from. They are now called “the Waodani,” which just means, “the people.” It’s their name for themselves, known as “Wao” [pronounced “Wow”].

Nancy: Did the five men have any communication with their wives?

Valerie: Yes, Nate Saint was daily flying back and forth to get more supplies, so each of the days he would fly back, talk to his wife about how everything was wonderful, they were settling in, they were excited and happy! He would have to pick up the supplies. His wife would fix food for them to have, and he’d go back daily and land on the beach.

Nancy: We’re talking about . . . how far away is the base?

Valerie: It was probably an hour’s flight from where Shell Mera was to where this was. They called it “Terminal City,” I believe. Then they waited. After this friendly greeting, they prayed a lot together that the next time they met them would also be a friendly greeting. 

Marge Saint, Nate’s wife, was daily letting the other women in their different stations know how things were going. She would radio to them; there was always a set time that everybody got on the radio.

Nancy: So they weren’t all at the same station.

Valerie: Right, they were at four different stations. Now, my mother and father got married in 1953; this was the beginning of 1956. The wives heard on Sunday afternoon through Marge, after Nate had said in the morning, “I’m going to call you at 4:30.” The women heard that from Marge, so they all knew.

They were hoping that the Aucas were coming to the beach, because when Nate flew over the village, there was nobody there. So he said, “I hope they’re all coming to the beach. Pray for an afternoon service!”—kind of tongue-in-cheek, because of course they didn’t know their language. But they hoped that they would all have a friendly, happy gathering that afternoon.

At 4:30, Marge got on the radio to hear from her husband, and he was always very prompt to call when he said he would. And there was not a sound from the radio, and of course for a couple of hours she kept on trying . . . calling, calling, calling.

Nancy: So it would have been shortwave radio?

Valerie: Yes. They didn’t hear anything, so after a couple of hours she let the other four women know that she had not heard anything. She said, “Please pray.” Perhaps the men had been held hostage, so they prayed for that. That was a Sunday afternoon, when no message came at 4:30.

By Wednesday, a search party was sent out. The Ecuadorian Army, as well as the U.S. Air Force, were alerted Monday that they were missing. One plane flew over but didn’t see anything on the beach. Then by Wednesday, a helicopter flew over and they saw bodies in the water.

By Friday, the ground search party—which was missionaries and a few Quichua Indians—arrived and found four bodies with many spears in each one. All the spears were stuck on the bottom of the river so that the bodies stayed there. They had obviously wanted others to know others to know that they had killed them with all of those spears in them.

One body had floated down the river and was found a couple of days later. That was Ed McCully’s body. The plane was destroyed, with the Aucas just tearing off the fabric and messing up as much as they could. They just basically destroyed everything on the beach.

Nancy: No Aucas around?

Valerie: No. The search party, of course, was expecting that the Aucas were watching and were afraid of an attack, so people were walking in with guns. The Shell Oil workers had started carrying guns after those couple had been killed a couple years before. The Aucas actually called them “firesticks.” But no Aucas appeared.

The news was sent around the world through TransWorld radio that these five men were missing. Marilou McCully had hoped that her husband might be held hostage, because his body was not found for two or three days, until after the first four bodies were found.

My mother and I were living with the Quichua Indians, where my father and she had started their work. My father had built a great house among the Quichuas in the little settlement called Shandia.

Nancy: And you were how old?

Valerie: I was ten months old when they were killed, so I don’t remember my dad. I have some great pictures of him holding me and playing with me. Of course, I’ve learned a lot about him since reading his journals and reading my mother’s biography, Shadow of the Almighty.

So what happened was, my mother had been praying with my dad for these Aucas since they were both in college, and she continued to pray for the Aucas. 

Of course, it was a horrifying shock to all of the widows. One of the women, it might have been Marge, said to the men when they had gathered at Christmas before this January meeting, “You know, you all might be killed.” I think it was Nate who said, “We’re ready to die, but these Aucus are not, so we need to go.” They all went in obedience to God’s call. 

They had prayed through this. They had planned and talked about the danger of it. The women were with their husbands praying for God to be glorified through this, for the men to be able to have this friendly contact. With that first visit from those three Indians that really was a wonderful contact, they thought that God had answered their prayers.

Nancy: I’m just going to push the “pause” button here, because there is so much more of this story. But as we’re listening—whether those of us who are very familiar with this story and have heard it many times, or some who are hearing it for the first time—the instinctive reaction is, “This is a tragedy!” And of course, it was.

This was evil. This was the enemy sabotaging the gospel and the work of Christ, or attempting to, but God always gets the last word . . . and Heaven rules! Your parents, and these other men and their wives, had a settled, sure sense of God’s calling, but also of God’s providence, His sovereignty, His goodness—even in the face of unspeakable evil. 

It was savage; it was brutal! But in God’s providence, as this story went out around the world, you just wonder if the enemy ever would have done that if he would have known the groundswell that would result, of other men and women saying, “I want to reach the unreached peoples of the world!” and “I’m willing to give my life for the cause of the gospel!”

It reminds me of that passage in John chapter 12:23 where Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” You think, glorified, that’s like exalted and on His throne. But then He talks about His death.

He says, “Truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12: 24–25). “Hate your life . . .” not as in self-hatred, but as in, “If you’re willing to lay down your life, you’re going to keep it for eternal life.”

"If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (v. 26) So here you have this, what seems humanly, a strange juxtaposition of death and suffering and serving and laying down your life, but right in the context of being glorified and God being honored and being with Christ.

The loss of your dad’s life there in that jungle on that beach, your mom and the other widows’ response following that became a platform for God to be glorified, for Christ to be honored, for the gospel to go out in ways far beyond what that band of brothers and their wives could ever have imagined!

Valerie: Right.

Nancy: We want to pick up that story when we come back on the next Revive Our Hearts, because it didn’t end there. It still hasn’t ended! It still continues, but we want to share more of what unfolded there. 

I’m so thankful that, in God’s providence, He allowed you (we’ll talk more about how this happened) to come into the exchange of the love letters between your parents during the five years leading up to their marriage. 

You’ve compiled those into a book called Devotedly: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. We’re making that resource available to any of our listeners during this series who would make a donation in any amount to the ministry of Revive Our Hearts.

When you make that contribution, let us know you’d like to have a copy of the book Devotedly, and we’ll send it to you as our way of saying “thank you” for your investment in this ministry.

Dannah Gresh: You can do that by going to our website, ReviveOurHearts.com, or call us at 1–800–569–5959. And while you’re at the website, you’ll see links to other books by Elisabeth Elliot, books that tell the story Valerie has been sharing today. Nancy?

Nancy: There is much more to this story, and also the earlier unfolding of this love story between Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, so be sure and join us again tomorrow for Revive Our Hearts with Valerie Elliot Shepard.

Calling you to greater freedom, fullness, and fruitfulness in Christ, Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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About the Speaker

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love …

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