Remembering Frank Drown

Frank Drown died early this morning at a nursing home in the Kansas City area. He was my great-uncle. At 95 years old, his death took none of us by surprise. Still, I’m sad today. He was the last of his generation, and he was a good man.

You might not have heard of Frank Drown, but if you did it was probably because of his role as a missionary in the jungles of Ecuador.

He and his wife, Marie, moved to Ecuador in 1945 with the mission agency formerly called the Gospel Missionary Union (since renamed Avant) to engage unreached people groups in the Amazon jungle. They wrote a book about their experiences working there, among the Shuar and Atshuar peoples: Mission to the Headhunters.

One of his colleagues in the early years of his ministry there, Roger Youderian, eventually joined with four other young American missionaries to establish contact with another people group called the Auca, or Waorani. However, the lives of these five young men were tragically cut short, early in 1956. Even though the Americans had the means to defend themselves with fire-arms, they succumbed to their new “friends” who attacked their camp by surprise and killed all five with spears.

The incident made international news at the time, and my Uncle Frank featured heavily in the story because he led the search party to recover the bodies and establish the facts of the case — which ultimately resulted in others returning to the area and successfully re-establishing contact years later. The book on this incident, Through Gates of Splendor (by Elizabeth Elliot), has been widely circulated, and the story has served as an inspiration to many — including our own family, who named our first-born son after one of the heroes from this story.

I think it’s pretty neat that my great-uncle played such a key role in that period of history and global missions. But my admiration for him is not limited to the high-profile, globe-trotting, mid-20th Century kind of stuff.

After serving in Ecuador for 37 years (until 1982), Frank and Marie moved back to North America, where even in “retirement” they continued to stimulate interest and engagement in missions to unreached people groups. In particular, they worked to establish a radio outreach to the remote tribes of Native Americans in Canada. In 2002, Marci and I were greatly encouraged by a personal visit with Frank and Marie, just before our own move overseas (to Amsterdam). In the two decades since that visit, we’ve been in regular correspondence, through all the ups and downs of ministry. And when I last saw him face-to-face, at my Grandma’s funeral in 2011, he was a dignified and delightful patriarch, helping the family through a time of grieving and loss.

I respect the fact that Frank and Marie enjoyed 73 years of marriage. I admire the way that Frank and Marie demonstrated what a ministry lifetime could look like — through moving overseas, to moving back stateside, to retiring — running strong all the way to the finish. Now that he’s gone, I think it’s just important to say that my great-uncle Frank will be missed. He will not be forgotten.

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