Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | December 8, 2018

On the Death of John Chau

The recent death of John Chau sparked a media debate over extreme missionary work. Twenty-six year-old Chau was killed on November 16 while trying to contact one of the world’s last unengaged tribes — the Sentinelese.


The Sentinelese people inhabit the North Sentinel Island of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. They subsist on what they gather and hunt. These islanders remain completely isolated from the rest of the world. We know very little about them.

The first documented contact with the Sentinelese dates back to the late nineteenth-century. A British admiral (some believe a probable pedophile) visited the island and kidnapped, then later returned, some of the children of the island.


After that first traumatic encounter, the islanders became suspicious of and aggressive toward outsiders. Almost every person who has attempted to set foot on the island since then has been killed. The Indian government has therefore made it illegal for anyone to visit the Sentinelese.

The Indian government also restricts outside contact with the Sentinelese because they have no immunity to the diseases that could decimate their small population. Contact with outsiders would expose the Sentinelese to germs that could result in deaths.

Little is known about the language of the Sentinelese. According to the Joshua Project, their language is different from other languages of the Andaman Islands. And, of course, the Sentinelese language is unwritten.

Enter John Chau, a twenty-six year old Christ-follower with a passion for the nations. His Instagram feed tells the story of a young man with an insatiable thirst for life and adventure. His photos document his short-term mission work as well as other adventures.

A graduate of Oral Roberts University, Chau later became a member of All Nations, a missionary sending organization. He received some cross-cultural training and coaching from this organization. Chau also pursued linguistics and wilderness training to better prepare for engagement among the nations.

From the time he was a teenager, Chau had studied about and dreamed of taking the gospel to people like the Sentinelese. That tells me a lot about his heart. He wanted to move in the direction of those who have yet to hear about Jesus. I respect that.

So, what went wrong? Why did Chau end up dead at 26 on the shore of a remote island?

I offer these observations as one who has found himself more than once in a context turned dangerous. I have visited several islands in the Bay of Bengal, albeit closer to Bangladesh. I know what it is like to be afraid when suddenly something happens that signals things are about to get ugly.

My observations are in no way intended to disparage John Chau or his earnest desire to reach out to the Sentinelese. I wish I had known him. In a day when too many are self-absorbed, people like Chau remind us to look beyond ourselves.

If I could have spoken to Chau, I would have offered these observations.

First, learn from history. Everything we know about the Sentinelese tells us that they desire to remain isolated and are willing to kill to prevent outsiders from visiting their island home. A brief visit from some Indian anthropologists seems to be the lone exception. All other attempts to engage with the islanders have been unsuccessful. That is not likely to change any time soon.

Second, do not go alone. Alone is dangerous. When Jesus appointed seventy-two and sent them out, He sent them two by two (Luke 10:1-12). There is much wisdom in that! Chau paid some Indian fishermen to break the law by transporting him to North Sentinel Island — and he went alone. That was not wise given the history of the Sentinelese.

Third, language matters. At this point in history, only the Sentinelese speak Sentinelese. That in itself presents a challenge but, given time, not an insurmountable one. Many Wycliffe Bible Translators through the years have ventured to difficult places to learn a language, develop an alphabet, and then begin the process of translating the Scriptures.

On his first attempt to reach the island by kayak, two armed Sentinelese moved toward Chau in an apparent attempt to keep him from coming ashore. Chau later wrote in his journal, “I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.’” Of course, Chau’s words were incomprehensible to the Sentinelese.

Fourth, know when to walk away. Jesus instructed the seventy-two that if they were not welcomed at a place, they were to wipe the dust off their feet and go away. It is important to note that the Sentinelese were not rejecting the gospel because they have yet to hear the gospel. They were instead rejecting an intruder to their island.

Nevertheless, there is wisdom in walking away when the situation warrants it. Walking away does not mean giving up. It means that the time may just not be right. To persist can lead to deeper problems, including violence. Sometimes the best way forward is by taking a step backwards and waiting patiently for the right opportunity.

Fifth, do not let your passion overshadow wisdom. After being rebuffed the first time, Chau wrote in his journal, “I turned and padded like I never have in my life.” Chau returned to the island a second time only to be greeted by a volley of arrows, one of which pierced his Bible.

Finally, Chau returned a third time and was killed. Doing the same thing in the same way again and again generally does not yield different results. Many mountain climbers have died because of summit fever — allowing their passion to reach the summit, when it was inadvisable, to overrule the wisdom of temporarily retreating and living to climb another day.

Sixth, seek the wisdom of many counselors. To his credit, Chau sought counsel and training from a sending organization. Learning from those with wisdom honed by years of experience is important. Proverbs 11:14 says, “in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”

Although Chau’s sending organization did not try to discourage him, they did caution him clearly that he was putting his life on the line. After that, they had no direct contact with him.

Seventh, be patient. A mentor of mine who heads a sending organization told me of a friend of his who had a passionate desire to see the Raute people come to faith in Christ. He prayed fervently for this people group and led others to do the same for twenty years. Only recently did he make contact and begin to see the answers to his prayers.

Finally, live to adventure another day. In a beautiful passage in Philippians, the Apostle Paul wrote that to live is Christ and to die is gain. And while he preferred to be with Christ (Philippians 1:21-23), Paul believed the Philippians needed his continued help and encouragement (Philippians 1:24). So, he wanted to remain alive for the sake of the Philippians.

I wish Chau had walked away after the first volley of arrows and instead remained alive for the sake of the Sentinelese. He could have championed prayer initiatives for the Sentinelese, developed a wiser strategy to reach them, sought out those on adjacent islands who might be able to open doors, and more.

Chau’s story will no doubt be told and debated again and again in missions circles. It is a cautionary tale for those who seek to obey the last command of Christ. One writer observed that although Chau was killed while serving as a missionary, he was killed because of his unpreparedness. However uncomfortable it may be to admit it, there is truth in that.

However, in spite of any clumsiness on the part of Chau, I believe that God will bring good out of it all. A trusted friend pointed out to me that Chau’s clumsiness trumps our doing nothing. Ouch! There is indeed truth in that.

Perhaps, my friend pointed out, the Sentinelese will one day hail Chau as a hero in spite of his clumsiness because he had the passion to go while others had crossed them off their lists or were not even aware they existed.

Chau’s death has unwittingly put unreached peoples like the Sentinelese on the prayer radars of Christians around the globe. And, as in the cases of others who have died while trying to take the gospel to hard places, God will raise up others who will go. Many will be inspired to a greater boldness because of Chau’s story.

My intent has not been to either disparage or to dishonor Chau’s death but instead to try to understand it. I am deeply saddened by the death of this young man. As someone whose own heart has been oriented to hard places, I understand Chau’s heart and his desire to move toward the Sentinelese.

My prayer is that God will indeed redeem Chau’s death and that one day the Sentinelese will hear, in their own language, the story of the God who loves them. May we learn good lessons from the human frailty and divine calling of John Chau. And like him, may we consistently move in the direction of those who have yet to hear the gospel.


Responses

  1. Thank you for a balanced, Biblical and unemotional view of this event. I pray his life will, by God’s grace, open the doors to reaching these people for Christ.

    • Thanks, Linda. I join you in that same prayer.

  2. Thanks for your honest perspective and giving me things to think about! I love what your friend said “Chau’s clumsiness trumps our doing nothing.” It is making me think and challenging me to pray for the nations and the unreached people of the world. I use prayercast.com to look out to different nations and the prayer needs. Do you have any other ideas?

    • Thanks, H. I will look at prayercast.com. Trusting that God will use Chau’s death to stimulate lots of prayer for the Sentinelese and other UPG’s.

  3. Thank you for that godly wisdom and insight. I pray for the Sentilenese , John Chau’s family and friends and all bold missionaries this evening.


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