Making the Grades
How would you respond if you were asked to meet with the people who had savagely slaughtered your husband, father, brother or best friend? Such an invitation was given to wives, children and sister of a close-knit group of Christian missionaries serving in a remote region of Ecuador during the 1950s.
Beyond the Gates of Splendor tells this true story by first introducing the audience to the Waodani Indians (also known as the Aucas). Living in isolation because of their barbaric practices, the Amazon tribe describes their history as one of blood feuds and vendettas stretching back at least five generations.
Anthropologists Clayton and Carol Robarchek, who consider them to be "the most violent society ever documented," explain that homicide within their tribe accounted for six out of every ten adult deaths. Growing up in this culture of killing, their children quickly learned the only law of their jungle: "Spear and live, or be speared and die."
Next, the widows and family members of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, and Roger Youdarian share their memories of the slain Americans and explain what happened on that fateful day in January of 1956 when the five zealous preachers attempted to make contact with these fearsome rainforest dwellers.
This would be an interesting story if the documentary ended there. But the truth is their deaths are only the beginning of this remarkable tale. Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth Elliot and her children (the wife and offspring of Jim) and Rachel Saint (the sister of Nate) are given an opportunity to live with the very group of natives whose spears and machetes mutilated their loved ones. And incredibly, they take it!
But instead of anger, calls for justice, or revenge, these women and children bring love, the word of God and forgiveness to a primitive people who have never before heard of such philosophies. Within two years, their message of peace turns tragedy into triumph, and according to the Robarcheks, drops the death rate among the Waodani by 90%.
Nor is that the final chapter in this compelling real-life drama, because this amazing account continues into the present, as the grandchildren of both groups continue to interact. Today (fifty years later), they work toward helping these latecomers to the 21st century improve medical access, learn self-governing skills, and find ways to cope with the larger world around them. (The film also follows one of the Waodani men who comes to visit a city in the United States, and allows him to share his unique perspective on western culture.)
Parents should be aware the verbal descriptions of the violence, some archival photos of the murdered men, and the lack of clothing worn by the Waodani may be disturbing to younger viewers. However, for older audiences, this movie is sure to be a though-provoking experience.
Narrated by Steve Saint (the son of Nate and nephew of Rachel), the remarkable relationship between these unlikely parties, who now love each other like family, is a well-fitting tribute to those martyred in the hope their death might bring new life.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Beyond the Gates of Splendor.
What do you think enabled Elizabeth and Rachel to forgive those who had killed their family members? Could you have done the same? How did their example change the lives of the Waodani? How did living with the Waodani change the missionaries?
Why was it impossible for the missionaries to bring only religion to this primitive people? How have the cultural influences changed the Waodani? What do you feel have been the gains and losses for this ancient people? What do you think would have happened to the Waodani if the missionaries had not contacted them?
What decision did the missionary men make about taking arms with them when they attempted to contact the Waodani? How did that choice reflect their faith and conviction to their cause? Had they made a different decision, how might that have affected the outcome of this remarkable story?
Home Video Viewing Alternatives
Here are some ideas for home video titles that are related to Beyond the Gates of Splendor.
The story behind this documentary has been made into a movie called End of the Spear. The Other Side of Heaven is a dramatized version of the real life experiences of John Groberg (played by Christopher Gorham), a Mormon missionary from America who lives among the people of Tonga during the 1950s. Lilies of the Field tells the fictional account of a black Baptist handyman (Sidney Poitier) who is talked into helping some German Catholic nuns build a church in the American desert—an experience that helps all involved reexamine themselves, their motivations and their relationship with God.