Who was Ernie Fowler -- and what did he do that's worth remembering?
At Urbana ’09, Patrick Fung, general director of OMF International, talked about those Christians who were forgotten. In China, thousands continued in the faith when all missions organizations were forced to leave, and the Chinese Church actually grew! Yet the only remaining memory of many of these Chinese Church leaders is a stray file or two tucked away in some remote research library.
Yet how much should we worry about our names getting remembered? When a life is centered on Christ, the answer is: not much. Achilles lived a reckless and abandoned life for his own glory, and he is best known for a fatal weakness. The modern chase after self-importance will always bear the fruit of an Achilles’ heel. The pursuit of our own memory will be the pursuit of our fatal weakness.
Instead we must be content with being nobodies for Christ; to be forgotten. Many missionaries will have passed through the Twentieth Century only remembered by relatives and a few people that they were able to minister to. Their lives were never considered great, but they did their part faithfully, and most importantly God does not forget them.
One such missionary, one few have ever heard about, is Ernie Fowler, who served with the Latin America Mission in Latin America. Born and raised in the frontier plains of the United States, Ernie Fowler learned the value of hard work. He was a rebellious child, but God met him in his youth and marked him for his missionary calling. He went to Denver for Bible training. Called to serve God in Colombia, to Colombia he went, on his birthday in 1934. He was 27 years old.
Ernie from the beginning had a heart for the Indians. In a Sunday message to missionary colleagues just over a month after arriving in Colombia, Ernie mentioned his heart for Indian ministry, and spoke of his desire to make future survey trips into their territory. But during his first five years he first needed to work on learning Spanish, to come to grips with the culture, and to get to know the different peoples living on the northern coast of Colombia.
Eventually the Lord laid on his heart an Indian tribe called the Yukpas, hidden away over the high mountains on the border between Colombia and Venezuela that as yet had no written language, little contact with the Gospel, and very few believers.
Following his first furlough, the time seemed ripe to visit the Yukpas. So Ernie and two companions planned an exploratory trip that lasted two months, hoping to contact these primitive Indians who at that time, if not hostile, were certainly unfriendly. In the journey over high mountain passes and cutting their way through almost impenetrable jungle, both his companions became ill; one of them died. Unable to bring him home, they buried him in a makeshift grave. Ernie learned first-hand as a new missionary something of the cost of pioneer evangelism.
When Eva Philpott arrived on the field, old bachelor Ernie found love and a kindred spirit, and the two were married. Although his mission had appointed him as field leader, he and Eva with two other families settled among the Yukpas, finally realizing his dream. They opened their hearts to the Indians, making many friends, and began serious language analysis.
During their next furlough, Ernie and Eva shared with their supporters their vision of seeing the Lord break through to the hearts of the Yukpas, the translation of the Scriptures, and the founding of a church. But all this was not to be. A period of political violence had broken out in Colombia, their house was sacked, and it was impossible to return to the Indians he had grown to love.
During the next 13 years, Ernie had to continually postpone his return to the Indians. The shortage of missionaries because of the violence and the government not granting visas to new missionaries pushed him into positions of administrative responsibility with his mission. His unusual fluency in Spanish, his humility, his love for people, and his multiple communication skills, kept him constantly occupied and ‘irreplaceable.’ Then, the needs of his growing children convinced him and Eva that they couldn’t leave the city just yet to live so far from ‘civilization.’ However, all the while his eyes from time to time would look east to the mountains and his prayers would caress his beloved Yukpas.
When the Latin America Mission finally saw the way clear to release him to his first love, the chairman of the board of trustees, Jacob Stam, had these words to say about him, in recognition of his service in Colombia: “Few demonstrate more completely the humility and love of Christ in sacrificial service for others. I voice the feelings of all in expressing appreciation for the past and our need of him and best wishes for the future.”
For two years, Ernie and Eva joyfully joined two other families living with the Yukpas. He plunged into translation and literacy work and the training of Colombian leaders, happy to be doing what had been his heart’s longing for so many years.
Then, one summer, on a hike with his teenage son, John, and David Howard’s young son, Dave, Jr., Ernie happened upon guerrillas disguised as policemen. They ordered him to give them his shotgun, and then shot him in the face, right in front of the boys. Ernie’s earthly ministry of thirty years in Colombia was abruptly cut short. The two trembling, heartsick boys carried him home to Eva and buried him near the Yukpas for whom he had given his life.