by Steve Saint
I visited the mysterious, fabled city of Timbuktu years ago. It was part of a spiritually challenging adventure-filled visit to West Africa in the middle of a terrible famine that decimated people groups inhabiting the Sub-Saharan grasslands in that part of the world.
In Timbuktu, I learned the fear of being totally separated from other people who look, think, and believe as I do. But I also discovered how unfathomably capable God is of working all things together for good for those who let him write their story.
The story God has been writing with my life started with an excruciatingly painful chapter he began when I was just a young boy living contently on the edge of the Amazon jungles of Ecuador in South America. That is about as far as you can get from Timbuktu geographically, culturally, and spiritually.
The first five years of my life were happy and contented ones. Then, all of that was shattered one day when my mother called me into her bedroom to tell me that my dad and hero was never coming home to live with us again.
In an attempt to make contact with an unreached and violent tribe of people who had never had friendly contact with the rest of the world, Dad and four of his close missionary friends had been violently speared and hacked to death. In a final act of scorn, their bodies had been thrown into the river beside the sandbar where Dad had landed his little yellow plane. It had also been torn to shreds.
It felt like my life was over. All my dreams centered around Dad. He was going to teach me to swim. Then, he was going to teach me to help him fix the little bush plane he flew into the jungles each day, transporting supplies and missionaries and bringing back sick Indians with their exotic tribal ways for medical attention at the tiny mission clinic just up the road from our rustic but functional house. And finally, he was going to teach me to fly like he did. All I wanted in life was to grow up to be just like Dad.
I can still remember the cold, dark, empty feeling of aloneness I felt when I was told that my dad had been killed. That was the only common bond between that horrible revelation I experienced as a little boy and my experience in Timbuktu. I again felt that terrible aloneness.
I found out that the jump seat on a United Nations relief flight that had taken me to Timbuktu was going to be taken by a UNICEF doctor on the way back to the capital city. I did not have to be told of the danger I was in. I was a fair-skinned ‘Toubabu’ in a world of dark-skinned Berbers, and a follower of Christ in a militantly Muslim city like Timbuktu in the middle of a draught-induced famine. Temperatures in Timbuktu easily reached to 120 degrees during the day. I could feel myself dehydrate standing in the shade; and there was no scheduled air or ground transportation to get me back to the world where I belonged.
I was alone and scared again, just like I had been as a little boy. In desperation, I searched for the tiny Christian church I had heard existed against all odds in this famous old Muslim stronghold.
To my great relief, with the help of a group of ragged street urchins I found Nouh Ag Infa Yatara. Beneath the flowing robes and behind the only smiling face I had seen in this mysterious desert city, I found a brother I had never known. We were opposites in the color of our skin, dress, culture, and language. But I knew immediately that we were related by blood – the blood of Christ.
Unable to communicate but feeling a mystical bond, Nouh (Noah in English) took me in search of a translator. The story he told me was incredible. Nouh became the first Bela (a slave tribe) follower of Christ in Timbuktu. When his mother found out he had become an ‘infidel’ she beat him. He was thrown out of Koranic school. Then his mother threw him out of his home in order to maintain her standing as one of two or three wives of a Muslim husband. Finally, when the teenaged Nouh would not recant his apostate faith, his own mother tried to poison him.
Through all the persecution, alone against his world, young Nouh determined to live for Christ in the Muslim city of Timbuktu.
I thought to myself, “My roots lie in a country where coming to faith in Christ is applauded and confirmation in the faith is celebrated with gifts and an open house.” I was incredulous that Nouh would have chosen to risk everything for Christ at such a young age. I asked for an explanation.
As the interpreter relayed what he was saying, Nouh told me that the hope he found in a new faith that based his claim to paradise on what God had done for him and not what he could do for God, and gave him the fortitude to hold on to faith through Christ – alone. Then he went on to explain that he had also been given a little book in French about five Christians who had risked their lives to take their faith to another group of violent people in a fearful part of the world covered in dense jungles.
Gates of Splendor
Your church can get a free Gates of Splendor screening kit at http://www.bearingfruit.com/. The kit includes a special 45-minute abridged copy of the documentary for use in any church, ministry, or college
He said, “When I read of five young men from North America who were willing to die for their faith in the Amazon jungles so far from home, I decided I could live for my faith at home.” Our interpreter happened to be from North America. He said, “I know the story Nouh is talking about. In fact, one of those missionaries had your same last name.” “Yes,” I told him. “I know that story. My dad was one of those five young men.”
Who could have imagined that the painful chapter that shredded my young heart in South America would be used by God to bring peace to another boy in Timbuktu.
Years later, I was traveling in the United States with one of the Waodani warriors who killed my dad, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming and Roger Youderian. I heard that Nouh and his wife and three boys were also in the United States. It would be impossible to describe the emotion that I felt introducing my brother in Christ from Timbuktu to the man who killed my very own father.
The incredible story God began writing when I was 5 will be 50 years old in January. The story has now been made into a docu-drama entitled Beyond the Gates of Splendor, which is available for churches to show to their congregations.
End of the Spear
If you want more information on the Jan. 20 release of End of the Spear, click here to check out their Web site. The movie has been awarded the “Best Film” at the Heartland Film Festival. Previous winners of this award include Remember the Titans and The Rookie.
On Jan. 20, 2006, the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of the five missionaries in Ecuador; this same story, will be released as a major motion picture, End of The Spear. For the first time in decades, modern followers of God and his son the Christ will be portrayed in a positive light to a broad audience in movie theaters.
It is incredible to me that God would again take what man meant for evil and use it for good with a new generation audience. And perhaps the most exciting prospect is that if audiences fill theatres for End of the Spear like we did for The Passion of the Christ, especially on Jan. 20 – opening weekend – it is likely that we will begin to see a steadily growing string of other major motion pictures that will crack open this long closed medium to people of faith and the Gospel message.