“We got him!”

AYACUCHO, PERU, was a flurry of activity. Christians paraded through the streets and musicians performed outdoor concerts, celebrating the arrival of a shipment of Bibles in a language the people could understand. Nestled into the South American Andes Mountains of Peru, Ayacucho means “Corner of the Dead” in the ancient language of the Incas. Ironically it birthed one of the most brutal terrorist groups in the Western Hemisphere, the Shining Path. At their hands, thousands of Christians were murdered for their faith in Jesus Christ. 

But in September 1987, thousands of Quechua Christians streamed down the mountain to attend the joyous celebration. At city hall the mayor, the local Roman Catholic bishop, and representatives of the Peruvian Bible Society took their places at the ceremony. For many years Rómulo Sauñe, from a small sheepherding village near Ayacucho, had worked with missionaries from Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Presbyterian Church to translate the entire Bible for the Quechua, his people. When Sauñe was a young boy, a horse kicked him in the head, causing him to lose hearing. The people called Sauñe “Deaf and Stupid One.” No one thought he would amount to much. Now at last his work was bearing fruit. 

Hunger for the Word of God

At the end of the ceremony, Christians crowded around the Bible Society booth to purchase Bibles. They pressed forward, eager. Some had walked great distances for a Bible, but the stacks were rapidly disappearing. Sauñe wondered, “How can we get Bibles to people if they can’t afford a copy today?” 

The next week Sauñe went to Lima to see his good friend, Wycliffe missionary Al Shannon. He expressed his concern: “This Bible is still too expensive for my people. Even at three dollars, it’s too much. What can we do?”

“Look, Rómulo, for every Bible you sell for one dollar, I’ll match it with two dollars.” Shannon was convinced that even at a subsidized price, Sauñe would sell only a few hundred Bibles, which the missionary could easily cover with his personal savings.

When they heard the plan, the Peruvian Bible Society directors agreed to print as many copies as Sauñe could sell during the special offer. News of the two-day sale was announced on Quechua radio. But Shannon told his wife, Barbara, “I admire Rómulo’s faith, but the country is in shambles. Most of the people don’t have one dollar to spare for food, much less for a Bible.” 

The day before the sale, Shannon received an anxious telephone call from Sauñe. “Al, we need your help!” Shannon’s first thought was that Shining Path terrorists had stolen the Bibles. “What is the matter? Is something wrong?” Rómulo laughed. “Nothing’s wrong, Shannon. We’ve just sold all 5,000 of the Bibles. We don’t have any to sell at the sale. Could you send up another 5,000 by tomorrow?”

Relieved, Shannon replied, “No problem. I’ll get those up to you by air first thing in the morning.” But then it suddenly struck him, Wait a minute! I don’t have that kind of money! That’s going to cost me a fortune. What have I gotten myself into? Help, God! But miles away Sauñe was laughing. The people were ready to receive these Bibles, and he had known it all along. 

The next week, Sauñe returned to Shannon’s office in Lima to tell the story: “Al, the people would do anything to get their own Bible. They even”—he choked back tears—“took the clothes off their backs and sold them in the streets to get the money.” In one week Sauñe and his friends sold 11,000 Bibles, a new record for the Peruvian Bible Society.

People continued pouring into Ayacucho to buy Bibles. Soon the entire first run of 20,000 was sold out. The Bible Society ordered another 20,000 Bibles; the Quechua church leadership held another sale, and all 20,000 were sold. Bible Society officials in Lima shook their heads in disbelief. But as the weeks passed, the violence by Shining Path terrorists increased and made Bible distribution nearly impossible.  

An Unexpected Visitor

Although terrorism reigned throughout Peru, the Sauñes lived simply without guards or security. One evening they settled their children into bed and listened to the childrens’ nighttime prayers. Suddenly there was a rap at the door. The Quechua community often came to the Sauñe house for help. Sauñe hesitated, then called out, “Who is it?” “Is the pastor there?” a voice asked. Since the pastor of their small church had gone for the night, Sauñe replied, “He’s not here.” Footsteps faded away. 

As was his custom, Sauñe got up at 4:00 a.m to pray. After breakfast Sauñe heard a knock at the door and opened it. There stood a young man with a gunny sack over his shoulder.

“Good morning,” Sauñe ventured. “Are you Rómulo Sauñe?” asked the man. “Why didn’t you open your door last night? If you had, things would have been quite different. I came by with two of my comrades. We were going to kill you.”

Wide-eyed, Sauñe stared at him, then with measured words replied, “You’re not fighting against me. You’re fighting against the God of the Universe. And that God didn’t allow me to open the door last night.”

The man said, “Rómulo, from your studies, you know the detailed preparations of the Shining Path. I’ve worked hard in recent months spying on the church. I’ve memorized Bible verses so you would think I was part of the congregation. I’ve even taught other comrades how to set dynamite and destroy churches.”

Sauñe had never seen the young man before, but he believed him. “Why are you telling me this now?” The terrorist breathed a heavy sigh. “Last night I was tortured by those Bible verses that I had learned. They were like a hammer pounding inside my head. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. So this morning I decided to come and talk with you about your faith, about your God. I don’t want to kill you anymore.”

Sauñe reached for his Bible and sat down next to the man, saying, “God is working in your life. You need to repent of your sins. You need to stop wasting your life and give it to Jesus instead of the Shining Path. It’s the only way to stop this torture in your head.”

The young man began to sob. He couldn’t speak, but Sauñe gently led him in prayer. After they prayed together, Sauñe smiled: “God’s Word says that the angels rejoice when someone enters the kingdom of God.” The man showed Sauñe the brown gunny sack. Inside was a small gun and a handful of ammunition. His story wasn’t an idle threat. 

the word lives on

In July 1992 in Manila, Philippines, Sauñe accepted the first Religious Liberty Award from the World Evangelical Fellowship. The award recognized Sauñe’s courageous efforts: proclaiming the gospel; translation work through Wycliffe Bible Translators and the United Bible Society; and servant leadership of TAWA, an indigenous ministry to the Quechua people. A few months after the award ceremony, Sauñe returned to Peru. 

In spite of the risk of meeting the Shining Path, that September Sauñe and other family members traveled to a small village near Ayacucho to visit the grave of Sauñe’s grandfather, brutally murdered by the Shining Path two years earlier. During the family’s trip home, the Shining Path set up a roadblock and killed Sauñe along with more than 20 others. After shooting Sauñe one terrorist exclaimed, “We got him!”

But bullets did not thwart Bible distribution in Peru and elsewhere in Latin America. Sauñe’s death prompted a whole generation to commit their lives to winning Latin America for Christ; his ministry continues today through Asociación Evangélica Runa Simi, which he founded. Shining Path activity declined in the 1990s after the group’s leader, Abimael Guzmán, was sentenced to life in prison, but in the twenty-first century, guerrilla groups still target Christians in Colombia and Venezuela. CH

By W. Terry Whalin

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #109 in 2014]

W. Terry Whalin, a writer and acquisitions editor at Morgan James Publishing, lives in Irvine, California. He has written more than 60 nonfiction books including One Bright Shining Path. His website is www.terrywhalin.com.
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