The house in Shell Mera, Ecuador, that Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) missionary martyr Nate Saint built in 1948 still stands, but it’s crumbling from termites and the daily rain that deluges the eastern Andean foothills. Chris Nevins of the non-profit construction ministry Fuel the Mission is about to change that. On June 15 Nevins and teams of Ecuadoran and North American workers began restoring the historic building.
“MAF holds so dear the history of Nate Saint’s work,” said MAF President John Boyd. “This major undertaking to restore the house that Nate built with a team of missionaries is so meaningful to MAF, not just for today, but for the future. Young people are taking an interest in Nate Saint and his sacrifice. I know the Lord is going to use this project to inspire the next generation to serve the cause of Christ to the ends of the earth.”
In 2006 Nevins, with his wife and son, lived five months in Ecuador to build a school for an orphanage. Nevins, 52, of Scottsdale, Ariz., had worked 30 years in the construction industry, much of it overseeing the building of country clubs, condominiums and housing subdivisions. Three years later, Nevins returned with a team to Ecuador for Bible training. En route, the van stopped in Shell Mera, a community on the edge of the jungle, and parked in the MAF hangar a few dozen yards from the Nate Saint house.
“Life” magazine brought the story to millions of readers in 1956 with photographs of Marj Saint and wives of the four other missionaries in the house’s kitchen, receiving word their husbands had been killed by Auca Indian spears. Nevins had read “Jungle Pilot,” Saint’s biography, which included photos of the house. Photos are also in “The Savage, My Kinsman,” a book by missionary widow Elisabeth Elliot.
Saint designed the 4,000-square-foot facility as his family’s living quarters, a guesthouse and a radio center to communicate with his wife Marj, the radio operator. On any given night, up to 20 missionaries passing through the area spent the night.
Nevins arrived at the MAF facility in pouring rain, but still he wanted to go to the house. By then it had been empty for eight years and was no longer safe to walk in. “I got 20 feet from the house, and my knees just buckled. I just stood there and cried,” Nevins said.
The emotion didn’t come from the house itself. “It’s the story of what God did those years ago. It’s about grace and restoration,” he said. “People come from all over the world to see it because of what God did with ordinary men.”
Last summer a 13-year-old girl from Texas whom Nevins knew posted on her Facebook page that she had visited the house. “She wrote, ‘I can’t believe we just visited the Nate Saint house. What a story of what God did through them, but I can’t believe they’re letting the house fall down, because it seems so important,’” Nevins recollected.
That’s when Nevins sensed God calling him to do something about it. He sent the girl’s comment to Gene Jordan, MAF vice president of human resources, and offered to help restore the Nate Saint house. Soon after, Nevins created Fuel the Mission to help mission groups around the world with their construction needs.
So far Nevins has raised half of the $75,000 needed to complete the Nate Saint house project. He will rely on the labor of Ecuadorans and North American volunteers.
Saint supervised the five-missionary construction team that began building the house in September 1948. They were MAF pilot Jim Truxton, George Poole of HCJB Radio, Frank Drown and Keith Austin of Gospel Missionary Union, and missionary surgeon M. Everett “Ev” Fuller of the HCJB hospital. They lived in tents during the five-week project.
One night sitting around the campfire, missionary David Cooper stopped to visit as he traveled through Shell Mera. Cooper told Saint about the Auca (Waodani) Indians, a hostile, animist, isolated people in the eastern Ecuadoran jungle. Eight years later Saint flew four missionaries to make contact with the Aucas, who killed them.
Saint had designed the house like a World War II army barracks with bare studs on the inside “to keep the varmints out,” Nevins said. It was built of termite-resistant jungle mahogany four feet off the ground for ventilation. It rested on concrete pylons with little moats around each that Saint filled with old engine oil to keep bugs out of the house.
Gene Jordan grew up in Ecuador as an HCJB missionary kid. As a teenager he lived several summers in the house. He remembers its mahogany walls were so hard that hanging a picture required a drill.
“The house always was one of the centers of activity when people were coming or going, with the big dining room and a lot of guests,” he said.
Through the decades, the two-story house served as a ministry center and a must-stop on the itinerary of short-term workers and Christian tourists. But as the house aged, its problems became too costly to fix. In addition to moisture and termites, earthquakes, volcanic ash and shifting soil were its perpetual enemies. In 2002, MAF ceased using it.
Today, as many as six vanloads of visitors may stop at the house in a single day. It has remained a draw for Christians around the world, as Saint has inspired so many believers to serve the Lord in missions.
And it inspired Nevins, who found three issues of “Life” magazine from the 1950s and 1960s that featured the Ecuador mission and house. Life’s images help guide the restoration of the structure nearly decimated by flying termites. As he toured the house with MAF workers, “crawling through every inch of the attic,” a ceiling joist began to give way under him.
The kitchen and radio room will be restored to their original state. The rest of the house will become mission offices and a training room, with an apartment for a resident missionary family in the back. The house’s electric and plumbing systems will be redone. It will be wired for Internet. A “wall of remembrance” will trace the history of the house.
Nevins says that the tentative date for the 90-day project’s completion is Sept. 15. This depends on funding and the availability of volunteers.
Founded in the U.S. in 1945, MAF missionary teams of aviation, communications, technology and education specialists work with more than 1,000 partner organizations. With its fleet of 58 bush aircraft – including the new KODIAK – MAF serves in 42 countries across Africa, Asia, Eurasia and Latin America. MAF pilots transport missionaries, medical personnel, medicines and relief supplies, as well as conduct thousands of emergency medical evacuations in remote areas. MAF also provides telecommunications services, such as satellite Internet access, high-frequency radios, electronic mail and other wireless systems.