But You Care, Don’t You?
When a man’s ways please the Lord. (Proverbs 16:7)
The window for openly evangelizing in Colombia, South America, began to violently slam shut in the late 1970s. Farming, which was still the country’s largest industry, became committed to the production of cocaine, marijuana and heroin. Drugs were fast on there way to becoming the dominant factor in the nation’s economy, and shamefully, the primary market was not domestic; rather, it was the United States. Simultaneously, the country’s population experienced severe fractionalizing and headed into anarchy, and things are still the same today. The sociopolitical breakdown consisted of primitive indigenous Indians; rural subsistence farmers; national military, paramilitary and left-wing factions like FARC (which translates to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia); tribal-based anti-Christian terrorists; narcotics-trafficking cartels referred to as the Mafia, with corrupt police officers and bribed drug enforcement officials in tow; and insurgent anti-government guerrillas backed by Communist immigrants from Cuba. Colombia has been described as an ideological jungle with each group striving against the other – often through violent means – for control and power in order to impose its own rapacious agenda on the national whole and to appropriate whatever monies are available. Drugs were the source of substantial loose cash, and thus an easy means to finance the conflicting ideological ends.
Nearly a thousand pastors, priests and missionaries were forced out of the country at this time. Entire denominations abandoned Colombia; the few that stayed became tangled in deep compromises with various elements of the pervasive drug trade. One guerilla leader was confirmed as responsible for the deaths of four hundred pastors, holding the deadliest record in modern Christian history. It’s believed the torture techniques used by some of the criminal factions were handed down from the time when the Spanish and Portuguese Catholic Inquisition operated in Colombia and its neighboring regions.
A single Christian family remained uncompromised and, despite the threats, refused to leave. By staying, one family member in particular eventually achieved the rare status of modest acceptance by all the factions, and was thus able to move relatively free among them. The ease of access and general acceptance had not come easily, and it had not come without exacting considerable personal cost. Once this status was acquired, he was able to maintain that bearing for a long tenure, despite the ever-shifting political landscape. The unique trust was extended to a man of many talents and tasks: writer, electronics technician, commercial fisherman and farmer, pilot, missionary, publisher, land developer, Bible translator, radio broadcast personality, pastor and preacher, lecturer and teacher, ministry founder and executive president, corporate board member, filmmaker, and always, family man. He was a gringo from Minnesota by the name of Russell Martin Stendal.
How Russell arrived in Colombia has become the stuff of family legend and missionary lore. At the age of four, he viewed a picture book about South America titled The Awakening Valley. Photos depicting the hard life of Indians in Colombia arrested his attention. Russell questioned his dad as to why things were so bad and what they could do to help. Then came the most challenging question, a personal one: “You care, don’t you, Dad?” As a response, his dad told Russell about people referred to as missionaries who were called by God to provide foreign assistance. Without waiting for bedtime prayer, Russell immediately knelt in the family room and prayed for God to call his family to become missionaries committed to helping the Colombian Indians find a better life. Upon rising from his knees, Russell wondered if they would be able to leave the next morning. Departure day did eventually come, but it was four years later. At the age of eight, Russell – the oldest child – and his four other family members were on their way to Colombia as missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Soon the Wycliffe jungle pilots were young Russell’s heroes. Fifty years later, four generations of the Stendal family are still in Colombia, continuing to fulfill their ever-expanding objective.
Their missions’ outreach began with the primitive Kogi Indians of the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in Northern Colombia. The Kogi were one of the first tribes to make contact with white Europeans, the Spanish explorers of the sixteenth century. They were consistently overlooked, however, for the next four hundred years, leaving their ancient way of life undisturbed. This was due to a combination of their harsh, remote location and a culture that forbade communication and contact outside of the tribe on penalty of death. Until recently, they were still living a Stone Age lifestyle. The Stendal’s first attempted contact with the Kogi was through a non-Kogi Indian who was multilingual and willing to act as interpreter. True to the tribe’s ancient reputation, he was poisoned when the Kogi learned of his work. The Stendals eventually gained acceptance through a combination of two unique circumstances with key tribe members, both involving miracles of God’s healing and timing. God had to open the door that no man could open.
Missionaries are often accused by secular anthropologists of displacing the natives from their supposed idyllic paradise-like lifestyles. They are, however, rarely living in anything close to Eden; more often they are barely subsisting under barbarous circumstances. Kogi life has been characterized by extremely high infant mortality, short life expectancy, numerous serious diseases and worm infections, malnutrition and drug addiction to a cocaine-based traditional concoction. They were the poster children for the deprivations that first motivated four-year-old Russell after viewing the geography book. In light of the chaotic political situation existing in Colombia since the 1980s, the Kogis’ living standard was left unimproved. Had the Kogi managed to evade their primitive conditions, they would have been subject to elimination, manipulation or exploitation by the many warring factions swirling around them – all of them having far more power and consequence then a primeval tribe could have withstood. Missionary assistance from the Stendal family provided the Kogi with a level of aid and protection not otherwise available, even from their government when it was intentional about providing it, and it was rarely so disposed.
The Stendal’s believed in ministering to the Indians’ bodies as well as to their spirits, and ministering to their bodies meant helping them acquire education and skills in farming, hygiene and health, fishing, and safe drinking water. Improving the lives of the Indians was their original and continuing primary focus, but being able to minister to the Kogi and other tribes first meant gaining their acceptance. Once accomplished, it meant helping them find their place within all the competing group identities of modern Colombian society. As has been so true in other times and locales, the native Indians were at the distant end of society’s pecking order. The Stendal’s, however, gave the Kogi a singularly great gift: Russell’s dad completed the translation of the Bible into their language. He delivered it to the chief and proceeded to read certain passages. Upon hearing it, the chief proclaimed to his people that they had just received the truth, and that the word-of-mouth myths passed down among them for generations had become distorted and were no longer accurate or acceptable to follow.
Young Russell gained his missions-related jungle skills early by regularly helping his parents, especially his dad, and by living at times with the tribe. As their aid progressed, they noted that the Kogi were maturing, and, on a larger scale, that Colombia was changing. For their missions work to go deeper into Colombian society beyond the Kogi tribe, Russell’s ministry would require a change of means and direction.
Russell became a bush pilot while still in his teens, and a series of small planes served to assist him with several of his varied new undertakings. At times, these included transporting people or supplies. Later, they developed into dropping parachutes containing Bibles, radios and medicine into remote village locations, or delivering parts for transmitters, towers, or antennae on any one of forty mountaintops within his private (radio evangelism) network. One plane served for four years and came to be fondly known as the Pink Panther for its color and its animated exploits. The 1953 Cessna has since been retired and can be viewed in restored condition at the Voice of the Martyrs campus in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
Flying small, low-powered aircraft in the mountains – often alone, at night, and in areas known for tropical storms – served to yield a series of nearly unbelievable death-defying experiences from which Russell was safely delivered. These would be difficult to accept without factoring in divine intervention. They include being targeted in a crossfire by two jet fighters, multiple engine failures, midair fires, automatic weapon hits from the Mafia, frequent collisions with chickens and trees, crash landings, night landings in the jungle and hazardous grass landing strips, all with unfailing, miraculous safe endings, and all transpiring with used parts installed by unqualified mechanics. These close air escapes continue to be the status quo, as the ministry still employs the use of small planes in dangerous conditions on into its fourth generation. Russell says that his jungle pilot experiences are the fulfillment of his boyhood dream of an exciting life, but that there are times when it just plain gets too exciting.
Early on the morning of August 14, 1983, the twenty-seven-year-old bush pilot was planning to depart the rural village of Canyo Jabon in southeastern Colombia. He thought he’d be leaving the same way he’d arrived, by flying out in his Cessna 170. Russell was there for a business meeting to transfer his startup fishing business to the local Indians as a benevolent gesture. It was then that his life went on a 142 -day unscheduled sabbatical. It was the time and place of his first kidnapping. He’d often been threatened with kidnappings, but he had successfully avoided them thus far. This day he was unable to do so, and he was held longer than any of his subsequent captivity experiences. Marxist guerillas sold drugs, fleeced the locals, and kidnapped Americans in order to finance their long-running anti-government rebellion. Now they’d set another trap and marked Russell as their target. They mistook the young pilot for a rich North American gringo who could be cashiered for some big money.
Russell was forced to lay down his fully loaded, double-barrel twenty-gauge shotgun and surrender without a fight in order to save his captured friend from being killed in retaliation for any lack in his cooperation. After securing Russell, the insurgents spitefully sprayed his cherished Cessna with automatic weapons fire to ensure he’d never fly it again. They then raced upriver into a secure jungle area under their control. Unknown to his Communist captors, Russell had a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver strapped to his left ankle under his pant leg. With the first distraction, he fired the handgun at his captors until depleting the cylinder. It was a brief firefight that wounded his guard, but failed to gain his freedom. From that point forward, he was always partially tied and vigilantly guarded. His home became remote hideaways with frequent moves to secret new locations.
Constantly looking for escape opportunities but never finding them, Russell switched to a long-term strategy. His new plan was to make the best out of a bad situation. He would take his captors captive! The empty days and nights of captivity became times of prayer and meditation. As he closely observed his captors, he realized their lives were more prisoner-like than was his own. Russell was free inside, even if tethered on the outside, and there was a good chance a cash ransom would be paid and he’d be released to return to his wife and children. By contrast, most of his kidnappers were men and women who’d been taken from their families as young boys and girls, given weapons, and expected to dedicate themselves to a terrorist lifestyle, always with the distant promise of a worker’s paradise after the final victory. They were threatened with death themselves, or death to their families, should they try to quit the movement. The guerillas were physical captives, but more importantly, they were spiritual captives. Russell was at liberty inside because he’d embraced the truth of the good news, which had given him real freedom. He came to realize God’s immediate resolution for the guerillas’ painful predicament was him.
Russell determined that taking his captors captive could be done by a two-point personal approach. First, he would quietly engage the insurgents in personal conversations on controversial, but substantive issues of interest to them. He readily found those issues to be creation, America, President Ronald Reagan, the Bible, Christianity, God, Communism and capitalism. But, of course, his positions were always the polar opposite of his captors, so caution was a vital convention to honor so as not to push too hard too fast. Second, he would begin to share his life experiences, and he determined to be candid with them about every aspect. His approach gained immediate acceptance, and he was provided with writing materials. Russell began committing his story more formally to paper. It would be the book he’d always intended to write, but had never started.
In the book, he emphasized his life purpose, his beliefs, and most importantly, his mistakes. Doing so engendered a certain aspect of human frailty to which his kidnappers related. The mistakes shared included the times when he let his father fully blame a failure on his partner even though Russell shared the guilt; compromised his piloting with a drug operator; was angry at God; overextended his credit, got deep into debt, and presumed God would fix it; made key decisions without sufficient prayer preparation; and agreed to the promise of some big money in exchange for transporting a mafia personality in his plane. Russell even shared about some of the critical disagreements he’d had with his native Colombian wife, Marina.
When the past caught up with the present, Russell was writing of daily experiences with his captors. The book became completely coincident with his captivity and contained diary-like dialogue current with the unfolding events and emotions of his ongoing captivity. The Communists became so engaged in monitoring his book – even noting the inclusion of their names – that they built a desk and obtained a typewriter for his use. They asked to read the pages while still fresh, and they guaranteed they would preserve the whole of it for him if he would also translate the English version into their native Spanish. Russell likened his experience to Scheherazade and her alleged storybook titled One Thousand and One Nights. It helped assure him of a daily grant of life, just as it did for the fictional Scheherazade, who was able to extend her life one night at a time by entertaining the Persian king with her ongoing storytelling before he slept.
Russell was now permitted occasional gift packages from his family, and early on he received his Bible. He immediately began filling much of his day with Bible reading, but he also developed a unique practice of meditating on one psalm each day. He tied the number of the psalm to the number of his captivity day; for example, he read Psalm 96 on his ninety-sixth day of captivity. Russell told his captors repeatedly that they had kidnapped the wrong man. They assumed his having an airplane made him a rich American businessman instead of a poor missionary just living among them while trying to help their people. After many passing weeks with no ransom forthcoming, his captors attempted to break Russell psychologically; this is a technique called brainwashing. During this process, he was fed continuous lies about his family in addition to stories designed to cause fear, all the while being denied sufficient sleep.
He informed them that they had two choices: to kill him or to let him go for whatever small amount his family could afford. Asked by the guerillas if he was afraid to die, he replied he was prepared for it. The day Russell reached Psalm 142, he was blindfolded and taken in the middle of the night some several hours away to an unknown location. After stopping and having the blindfold removed, he saw his younger brother, Chaddy, with a mediator. His release had been negotiated for fifty-five thousand dollars, not the million originally demanded. The Communists claimed they’d lost money by holding him. Russell had consistently warned his captors that God would not reward them because they were interfering with His work. In addition to his freedom, Russell received two more pleasant surprises: The guerillas extended a promise that his family could continue to operate in their areas – known as red zones – without any further trouble from them, and his family had been able to repair his damaged Cessna.
Russell’s redemption wasn’t a conclusion; it was a beginning in disguise. He’d come to know many of these men personally, even winning their respect and friendship. It was these relationships – and later those additional ones gained through other kidnappings and difficult experiences with drug cartels, military and other factions – that eventually led to the free hand he gained in traveling throughout Colombia and in accessing all people groups. Later, some of his captors became Christians and joined him in witnessing to those still in spiritual bondage. The truth of this situation was well illustrated in the title of a Richard Wurmbrand book that Russell had read and that he was applying in his ministry: Jesus: Friend to Terrorists. By working His will through Russell in unexpected ways, God was taking the captors captive, one person at a time and one faction at a time. It was not Russell’s idea or plan after all; it was God’s. God had placed Russell in a teachable position and accepted his willingness to be used in any circumstance. Russell could not be fully used when he was still running with his own big missionary plans and projects; he had to learn to discern where God was moving and simply move with Him. He learned to do what Henry Blackaby calls “experiencing God.”
Russell says, “God taught me how to be a true missionary for Him. I began to react toward problems and adversity as opportunities to learn important things and as opportunities for God to use me to bring glory to Himself. My life changed to one of victory in Jesus Christ. I still have problems, difficulties and even an occasional defeat, but now I can clearly see the design and purpose that God has for my life. If I have the right attitude, God can reign over everything that happens in my life and teach me something useful from even the most difficult experiences.”
During this first kidnapping, as well as the others to follow, Russell was a pawn between several conflicting ideologies. He sometimes must have felt like Elijah on Mount Carmel as he demanded of the compromising multitudes: “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him.” (1 Kings 18:21).
Russell titled the book written during his first kidnapping Rescue the Captors. It’s still regularly printed, distributed, and read, and presently it has two sequels, which are often referred to as simply Rescue II and Rescue III. The Rescue books, and the many others he’s since written and continues to write, are serving as a bridge to those many lost, captive, and confused men and women in Colombia and beyond, including the Kogi Indian tribe whose plight first attracted the Stendal’s attention. His writings, along with the success and admirable example of the Stendal family, were noticed by the international church. Collectively, these things helped to draw other Christian workers back to Colombia; however, the men and women who are converted from within the warring factions of Colombian society often develop into the most effective and motivated team members.
The quality of life in the Kogi Indian tribe has greatly improved in many ways, just as young Russell prayed for; but they remain resistant to the gospel, with most retaining their primitive spiritualist beliefs and continuing to persecute Christian believers. Additionally, the long internal conflicts and ongoing drug trade have created new problems for the Colombians, with millions of refugees displaced from their homes, villages and lands. Death threats, selective assassinations, kidnappings and extortion are still prevalent, and, in fact, seem to be growing toward that degree of violence experienced by Christian workers in the late 1970s. One former FARC guerrilla, who had served the Communist cause since the age of fourteen, said: “My indoctrination led me to think that everything relating to Christianity needed to be abolished, so I killed many Christians. I displaced them from their lands and persecuted them, and I wouldn’t allow them to come together in their churches.”
The Stendal family remains in Colombia and continues to expand its ministry despite their staff and family experiencing the likes of regular kidnappings, death threats and aviation failures. Their story is ongoing, as illustrated by two fresh newsletters sitting on my desk. In the first, Russell states matter-of-factly: “We were twice lined up to be shot by unidentified irregular forces since the last mailing.” In the other: “I expect to be released from the kidnapping soon.” The ministry has benefited by linking many of its projects to two organizations: Voice of the Martyrs in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and Spirit of Martyrdom in Clarkdale, Arizona. VOM is the much larger of the two and has as its mission finding and helping people – like Russell’s family – who are in the midst of persecution, but who are willing to stay despite everything they encounter. Meanwhile, Russell continues dropping Bible parachutes by the thousands from his plane, building radio stations to broadcast the Word into hard-to-reach jungles, airing Bible studies, translating the Scriptures into native languages, mediating truces and working his God-ordained relationships within the societal factions.
Even though many seemingly insurmountable obstructions remain, Russell effectively leverages his unusual earned immunity. First Corinthians 9:19 and 22 serve well to summarize the path chosen by Russell and his family: For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Their long dedication is presently being rewarded as they witness a strong regional revival in Southwest Colombia and a general revival throughout the national military. That same guerilla quoted above has now met Jesus and he says, “Instead of being a messenger of hatred, I am now a messenger of peace.”
The Stendal’s do the possible: sharing the gospel. God does the impossible: softening the hearts of men to receive it. When the Stendal’s arrived in Colombia in 1964, less than half of 1 percent of the population was considered evangelical Christian; as of the end of 2014, evangelical Christians comprised 25 percent of the population.
He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.
* * * *
Author’s Note: Prior to Stories of Uncommon Character going to print, I received a newsletter from Russell wherein he reviewed the previous year’s projects, which was his fifty-first year of Colombian-based ministry. Among other updates, he shared the following points. The man he called his worst enemy (some say the worst terrorist in Colombia) because he had been attempting to kill Russell for thirty years, has become his friend. More than five hundred of Russell’s friends and coworkers have disappeared during the last five years, all presumed murdered. Russell has won sufficient favor with the FARC guerilla leadership and Colombian government officials that he is accepted as their spiritual consultant. As such, he has induced both sides to declare a nationwide ceasefire with no expiration date while he meets with them in neutral Cuba to discuss the details of a larger peace agreement. More developmental narrative on these points can be found in Russell’s recently released third and most recent book in his ongoing Rescue series, Hidden Agenda.
From the book Uncommon Character, by Douglas Feavel
Used with permission
Available where books are sold