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Derrs shared homes in rainforest, Auburn

Community Portrait
By: Story and photo Michael Kirby
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It seems like a long time ago, and maybe it was, but in the late 1950s Auburn residents Dan and Elly Derr were very involved in Christian missionary work in Mexico and South America. In the South American rainforest, the Derrs were part of Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), serving the needs of primitive tribes in eastern Ecuador. The Derrs spent six years deep in the jungle with their five children, two of whom were born in Ecuador, evangelizing to indigenous tribes. Their mission there was to provide Christian ministry, educational needs, food supplies and basic medical assistance to native peoples who didn’t have much contact, if any, with the outside world. Working as partners, Dan was trained as a jungle pilot, and Elly worked on the ground, keeping their primitive home base in order and at the radio when Dan was in the air as his flight assistant. The Derrs were part of a team bringing a new connection to the outside world these people had never known. “We were able to get people and supplies into the jungle much faster with the airplane,” Dan Derr said. The killing of five missionaries in 1956 by the Auca tribesmen heightened worldwide awareness of missionary work in Latin America. The Auca are a small and very isolated tribe known for their violence against outsiders. “The name of the tribe was Waorani or Auca as outsiders called them, which translates to mean savages in their native language,” Elly Derr said. This never-before-reached group was contacted by five missionary men working in the area of the rainforest with other tribes. After carefully approaching the tribe and making friendly contact for days, the men felt comfortable enough to begin their mission with the Auca in early January of 1956. For reasons not entirely known, the tribe turned on the men, possibly believing they were a threat to the tribe. They killed all the men and destroyed their plane. The event made worldwide news and was covered by Life magazine staff photographer Cornell Capa, younger brother of famed war photographer Robert Capa. Several movies and books by family members and other missionaries working with the men document the tragic events that happened over those few days deep in the Ecuadorian jungle. Dan and Elly Derr were the next missionaries called by MAF to continue the work of these men. The couple spent six years at the farthest outpost of civilization in the Ecuadorian rainforest, continuing this work. Work in the jungle was hard, minus the comforts of civilization, and 20 inches of yearly rain was common. Most of the safety and communication equipment was war surplus and in need of constant repair. But the work was rewarding and their group of missionaries eventually made meaningful contact with the Auca Indians and fulfilled their mission with the tribe. The Derrs came back to the United States in 1964 and Dan was blessed with good employment as a corporate pilot, and in real estate, and Elly worked in a hospital as director of hospital volunteers. The Derrs moved to Auburn in 2002 and have stayed very involved in Young Life, a Christian organization aimed at young people whom they have worked with for years as they moved around the country. Though far removed from their experiences in the ’50s and early ’60s in Latin America, their time in the rainforest evangelizing with natives deeply touched the couple. On the wall hang primitive spears and blow dart tubes — gifts to the Derrs from the people they befriended. Carved wood sculptures and photos line their living room, and books written about their work with this missionary group are in their bookshelf. “Some people have said that the pay might not be good in ministry, but the retirement is out of this world,” joked Dan Derr. Dan and Elly have been married for 52 years and many might recognize Elly Derr’s name as a frequent contributor to the Journal letters to the editor page, always on the positive aspects of our community.