“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21
“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” Revelations 2:10
“Ernest’s legacy is one of a faithful servant. He selflessly served others his entire life.” David M. Howard Jr.
“Si salen, delen plomo.”
Those were the words the guerrilla leader told his men as he forced us—four children, ages 10 to 14—into a small room, 50 years ago this week. “If they come out, fill them with lead.”
It was Aug. 3, 1966. I had been visiting my best friend Johnny Fowler’s family in the high mountains of northeastern Colombia. Johnny’s father Ernest was working there to bring the Gospel to a remote tribe of indigenous people known as the Yukpa.
Ernest had begun his work in 1934 with two other missionaries, Alick Clarkand Harvey Hammond,but that effort failed when Hammond died of malaria. Ernest and Alick later returned with their wives, and they spent several years among the tribe. They began learning the language, and several of its members, including the tribal chief Papa Marte, embraced the Gospel.
That effort ended when violence drove them out of the area in the mid-1940s. Ernest and his wife Eve spent the next 20 years working in other missionary endeavors in Colombia, all the while yearning to see the Yukpa people again. The opportunity came in 1965.
Ernest and Alick returned to the tribe once more, along with a younger missionary, Carl Lehmann. Papa Marte was still alive, and a small group of Christians flourished. The missionaries began to put the Yukpas’ oral language into writing and produce a Bible in the Yukpa tongue. Lehmann built a house in the mountains that he shared with the others. Things were looking up.
In the summer of 1966, the Fowlers invited me to join them, and Johnny and I spent many happy hours exploring the mountains, mingling with the locals, playing games with the family, helping in the garden and living the carefree life of 14-year-olds.
On Wednesday, Aug. 3, Ernest took his daughter Valerie and her friend on an outing to a nearby ridge. Late that afternoon, a band of seven men arrived at the house, heavily armed and dressed as policemen. They asked for Alick, Carl and Ernest by name. None of them were there, but we invited the men in for refreshments. After a few minutes, they all stood up, pulled out their weapons, and ordered us to move against the wall, as they intended to search the house.
It soon became clear that these were not policemen, but outlaws—Marxist guerrillas, actually. They began filling their empty knapsacks with our belongings, including the missionaries’ language files, and randomly destroying things in the house.
After half an hour, they called us children over. We figured this was the end. Instead, the men locked us in the small room and later forced Eve in with us. Things got quiet, but soon we heard three booming gunshots. We then heard Valerie and her friend crying, coming toward the house. When they arrived, Valerie cried out, “They killed Daddy!”
The men had met Ernest and the girls about a quarter mile from the house. They again posed as policemen, but Ernest saw through this. One of the men then shot him point-blank in the face and again through the back as he lay on the trail. The third shot was into the woods at an unseen animal.
Johnny and I recovered the body, laid it under a tree, and then we all headed up the mountain to one of the Indian villages for protection. We sent word to the authorities, eight hours away, and spent the next day digging a grave in the field next to the house. The police finally arrived late Thursday evening, accompanied by Alick Clark. Early Friday morning, Alick presided over a simple graveside ceremony. Then we cleaned up the house and left.
Guerrilla activity stopped the missionary work among the Yukpa for more than three decades. But since the early 2000s, several Colombian believers have re-established contact with the tribe and discovered a number of strong believers. They built two schools and a church, and work is proceeding again on a Yukpa Bible.
The events of Aug. 3, 1966, were a defining moment in my life. I was certain we would be killed in those awful moments, yet I joyfully looked forward to seeing the face of Jesus. When it didn’t happen, it gave me a larger purpose in life—to live for Him. The next year, I chose as my “life verse” Paul’s words in Philippians 1:21: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Ernest’s legacy is one of a faithful servant. He selflessly served others his entire life. Yet the Yukpa were closest to his heart. Three times he ventured out to live among them; and in the end, he gave his life for them. The “Daily Light,” a classic devotional book from which we read at his gravesite, had this Scripture from Revelation 2:10 for Aug. 3: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
Mr. Howard is a professor of the Old Testament at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn.