Carrying on a missionary legacy

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, October 3rd. This is The World and Everything in It from WORLD Radio. 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next: Left with a legacy. 

What’s it like for children of notable Christians after their parents die?

Back in 1956, in a well-publicized atrocity, Auca Indians killed missionary Jim Elliot. His wife Elisabeth died four years ago. And recently WORLD Radio’s Kim Henderson was able to spend some time with their only child. Here’s her story.

KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: The November 23rd 1958 issue of Life Magazine had a story tucked away on page 23 that got a lot of attention. The headline? “Missionaries live with the Aucas. Child among father’s killers.”  

SHEPARD: My mother and father heard about the Aucas when they were in college… 

Valerie is the only child of two of the most famous missionaries of the 20th century.   

SHEPARD: That there was this primitive, hostile tribe in the depths of the Amazon jungle. He even says in his journal, “I want to sing over the Aucas,” meaning I hope to see them come to Christ, and I’ll be able to sing praises to God.

Her father, Jim Elliot, died at the hands of those Indians when she was 10 months old. But when Valerie was 3, she and her mother, Elisabeth, went to live and work among those same people. Eventually, they did get to sing over the Aucas. 

SHEPARD: Once they learned the gospel, and the whole tribe seemed to accept it quite easily, they said, “We did badly badly.” They didn’t have a word for sin. They didn’t have a word for very. So we did badly and we will not kill people again.”   

Valerie Elliot Shepard is now 64. She’s tall and trim like her mother was, with the same steady blue eyes. Her dad’s dimples show up in her quick smile. But Shepard’s biggest inheritance is her parents’ story—a story of Christian zeal and sacrifice and forgiveness. The pastor’s wife and mother of eight is asked to tell it at colleges, churches, conferences, even on TV. Once, Shepard told her mother she was concerned about being repetitive.   

SHEPARD: She said, “Val, that’s the story God gave you to share. So don’t ever feel badly that it’s the same story over and over again.” And of course, different places, different people haven’t heard the story. So I’m glad to be able to carry it on, carry on the legacy that way. 

And the legacy is substantial, if only in tangible terms. 

BROADCASTER: “Gateway to Joy. Here’s your friend, Elisabeth Elliot: “You are loved with an everlasting love…”  

“Gateway to Joy,” Elisabeth Elliot’s syndicated radio show, ran more than a dozen years. Her book, Through Gates of Splendor, spawned two documentaries and a 2005 film, End of the Spear. It grossed more than $11 million dollars. Then there are some 30 other books written by Elisabeth. And Jim Elliot’s published journals. Piles of their letters. Audio files. A trunk of collectibles from Ecuador.  

It’s up to Shepard to decide what goes to the archives and what to keep as family heirlooms. And she and Elisabeth’s husband, Lars Gren, own the copyrights to all the books.  

SHEPARD: Not all of them are still in print, but many are. And so I’m very thankful for to be able to carry on the legacy, just being in somewhat of control of, of what has been published. 

But Shepard kept one set of memorabilia to herself, if only for awhile. Her parents’ love letters. 

SHEPARD: My mother gave my father’s letters to me in the 1980s when I had all eight children at home and she said, “You don’t have time to read these now, but someday you’ll want to.” 

Her mother was right. After her youngest child left for college in 20-11, Shepard looked for the letters.

SHEPARD: I was thrilled to see this big packet that my mother had very clearly written, “Jim Elliott, letters to Elizabeth, 1948 to 1953.”

The letters are a riveting account of Jim’s devotion to God and to Elisabeth. Of Elisabeth’s determination to obey Christ first, rather than follow her heart. 

Shepard realized the letters could flesh out some answers to questions raised by her mother’s book, Passion and Purity. She also felt she shouldn’t keep them to herself. So she decided to publish them.  

Since Shepard didn’t have Elisabeth’s love letters to Jim, she planned to use parts of her mother’s journals. But that changed when Valerie happened upon an old trunk in her mother’s attic. At the bottom was a stack of letters, neatly tied with a blue ribbon. Valerie immediately recognized Elisabeth’s penmanship.  

SHEPARD: I was absolutely stunned and shocked because she was so sure he had destroyed them. 

Since February, Shepard has signed hundreds of copies of her book, Devotedly. It covers the Elliots’ long-distance courtship. They only saw each other five times in five years. Jim was unsure he could be married and still do the work God had called him to. He’d been told jungle life was too difficult for women.

SHEPARD: They just knew that if they were to follow Christ, they had to die to their feelings, and dying to their feelings meant this love had to be laid on the altar… 

The book’s intimate honesty surprised some Elliot fans. In it, Jim scoffs at Elisabeth’s “militant morality.” But Shepard says it’s important that neither of her parents be placed on a pedestal. 

SHEPARD: The physical longing was, to me, just real. And so, people needed to see that they were real people…

These days, being left with a legacy involves travel for Shepard. She drove three hours on a Tuesday afternoon to tell her story at a church in central Mississippi. It’s a sacrifice that many benefit from, including Sunday Holmes who drove four hours to hear her speak. 

HOLMES: When I was growing up Elizabeth Elliot was like a mentor to me through all her books. When I heard that Valerie was coming, I just couldn’t miss it, and I wanted my daughter to hear as well.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Lincoln County, Mississippi. 

(Photo/Kim Henderson)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Carrying on a missionary legacy

  1. Jan Wismer says:

    31 years ago, today, Valerie’s mother went on the air with the first program of Gateway to Joy! How significant that Valerie is passing on the legacy through her recently published book. God Bless…

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