"If you believe in Angels . . ."
By Kalynn Huffman Brower
As a rule of thumb I don’t like movies with overt moral messages, mostly because life is never that simple. The choices we face on a daily basis are rarely black and white, so I like my stories to reflect that bedrock reality. Give me irony. Give me paradox. Give me something to think about, something to sustain me.
So if you’d told me last September to see a movie about missionary families who want to spread the gospel of peace to a stone-age Indian tribe, I probably would have passed. Oh boy, I’d be thinking, just want I want to see cultural imperialism in its most hypocritical form. As in: we’ll convert you and make you into our image & the creepy threatening undertone, do it my way or fry. The arrogant attitude that permeates much of Evangelical Christianity bugs me.
Ugly attitudes still offend me, but about the filmI was wrong. In October I saw END OF THE SPEAR, the grand prize winner at the Heartland Film Festival. The beautifully made film tells the true story of protestant missionary families who in the mid-50’s at tremendous personal risk to themselves made the first peaceful contact with the Waorani Indians of Eastern Ecuador. I’ve been thinking about the story ever since.
END OF THE SPEAR is a Christian movie, yes. But, it doesn’t preach gospel passages. The characters aren’t self-named Christians who talk hateful and act in revenge. (Like the guys you see and hear on TV and radio. The guys in the news who want to rule the world by force.) This story is about missionaries who act Christ-like. Bona-fide Christians. For real. These people walk the walk with as little sermonizing as you’ll find in any feature-length film, much less a film that retells a true story of sacrifice and rebirth.
Here’s the topper From all the non-fiction accounts and personal interviews I’ve done, the real people were and are even more pure of heart than appears on screen.
Spoiler warning: If you’re a stickler for not wanting any details about the end of a movie, then read this after you see the film. For most people, I don’t believe the scene I disclose below will spoil your viewing pleasure.
At the climax of the film, the adult son of one of the missionaries who was speared to death by tribal warriors confronts one of the killers. It’s one of those movie moments where the writers and director take forty years of quiet and compassionate communication and compress it into one big dramatic moment. It works in the context of the movie, but what follows a flashback of the killings then also reads as a pumped up movie moment.
In the flashback the aging warrior remembers singing in the sky, and the film dramatizes a heavenly glow, angelic voices, and the spirit of a dead man rising to join the chorus. It’s beautiful and moving, but I left the theatre wondering if I was watching excellent movie special effects that depict the emotional truth of the experienceor if fifty years ago the real Waorani man had seen angels.
So I started reading. There are numerous non-fiction accounts of this story. (Including an excellent documentary, BEYOND THE GATES OF SPLENDOR, made by the same producer and director as END OF THE SPEAR.) I first read about the angelic vision in Olive Fleming Liefeld’s book UNFOLDING DESTINIES. Olive is the widow of Pete Fleming, one of the martyred missionaries. In the last chapter of her book, she tells of a pilgrimage she made to the Waorani land in 1989. After spending time in the village, Olive wanted to see the place her first husband had died. Kimo, who had as a very young man speared Pete to death, and his wife Dawa, who had witnessed the attack on the American missionary men, took her there by canoe. Over the years their reconciliation had taken place, so there was no hate or bitterness. But Olive still wanted to know more of what had happened that fateful day.
It had been many years since anyone had spoken of the missionary spearings. Kimo and Dawa told her something no one had heard before, at least none of the missionaries. They told Olive that when the American men lay dead and dying on the riverbank they all heard singing and the sky filled with bright lights. The Waorani’s first thought was that it was more foreigners in planes and they fled the beach, abandoned their village and hid in the forest for weeks. That did happen. A search party, complete with military helicopter, did come looking for the missing men. But they didn’t arrive on the scene until days later. Dawa, Kimo, the two other men who had been in the attack party, and another two eye-witnesses of the event, confirmed the same story. They had heard singing and they had seen brilliant lights in the sky.
In 2000 Matt McCully, son of one of the slain missionaries, returned to Ecuador, too. Around a campfire he heard the survivors tell the same story. “There were still three of the men and two of the women. They told the story that when they killed the men, they had all seen lights. They were afraid of more foreigners and they told they’d heard music. They were afraid and they fled. And each of them told the same story. . . . What that was, is open to interpretation. . . . [Some people believe that] they somehow saw and heard angels. Some people will think that sounds weird, but nobody made it up. It’s something that each of them remembers as part of that day.”
The most remarkable thing about the entire story is, that after their husbands had been killed, the missionary women returned to the same tropical rain forest carrying medical supplies, useful steel tools, and their small children. They also risked their lives to carry the gospel of peace.
Let me take a moment to explain why the missionaries felt so urgently about reaching this particular tribe. The Waorani were known killers, feared by everyone, including neighboring tribes. Oil explorers were building camps in the rain forest and they had been attacked, too. What the Americans hoped to prevent was a full-scale military style operation to clean out the so-called “savages.”
Once the women made peaceful contact they were able to convince the Waorani to lay down their weapons, that not all foreigners posed a threat. Some, including themselves, were their friends. The missionaries did teach Bible stories and they did convert a number of Waorani to Christianity. But the cultural imperialism was held to a minimum. For example, rather than pushing the Waorani to learn English or Spanish, the Americans learned Waorani first. Yes, they did convince the Wao to wear clothes but getting them access to snake bite anti-venom was far more important to everyone.
When I try to imagine what the men and women of the Waorani mission sacrificed, I’m very clear that not all angels are supernatural beings with heavenly voices and wings. Some visit us on earth as regular folks whose everyday actions lift up everyone they touch. Both kinds of angels inhabit this story. So, if you believe in angels, see END OF THE SPEAR.
More articles by Kalynn Huffman Brower