The Life and Death of John Chau, the Man who Tried to Convert his Killers

The 26-year-old American adventure blogger was killed by an isolated tribe last year. His father blames ‘extreme’ Christianity.

When Chau’s death became international news, many Christians were keen to disavow his actions; Chau’s father believes the American missionary community is culpable in his son’s death. John was an “innocent child”, his father told me, who died from an “extreme” vision of Christianity taken to its logical conclusion.

 

One day, as a small child, John Allen Chau was rooting through his father’s study when he found something curious and alluring: an illustrated edition of Robinson Crusoe, the classic story of a sailor shipwrecked on a deserted island.

“After struggling my way to read it with early elementary school English,” he later told a website for outdoors enthusiasts, “I started reading easier kid-friendly books,” like The Sign of the Beaver, “which inspired my brother and I to paint our faces with wild blackberry juice and tramp through our backyard with bows and spears we created from sticks”.

In November, on an obscure island in the Indian Ocean, Chau – a 26-year-old American adventure blogger, beef-jerky marketer, and evangelical missionary – was killed by the isolated tribe he was attempting to convert to Christianity.

When Chau’s death became international news, many Christians were keen to disavow his actions; Chau’s father believes the American missionary community is culpable in his son’s death. John was an “innocent child”, his father told me, who died from an “extreme” vision of Christianity taken to its logical conclusion.

All Nations, the evangelical organization that trained Chau, described him as a martyr. The “privilege of sharing the gospel has often involved great cost”, Dr Mary Ho, the organization’s leader, said in a statement. “We pray that John’s sacrificial efforts will bear eternal fruit in due season.”

Ho also told news organizations that Chau had received 13 immunizations, though Survival International, an indigenous rights group, disputes that these would have prevented infection of the isolated Sentinelese people. The Sentinelese, hunter-gatherers who inhabit North Sentinel Island in the Andaman island chain, are considered one of the Earth’s last uncontacted peoples; their entire tribe is believed to number several dozen people.

“John Allen Chau is not a martyr,” responded one Twitter user, capturing the prevailing sentiment on social media. “Just a dumb American who thought the tribals needed ‘Jesus’ when the tribals already lived in harmony with God and nature for years without outside interference.”

“I’m sorry,” another commented, “but what a deluded idiot.”

In a brief message posted on Chau’s Instagram account, his family pleaded for a more sympathetic understanding of the person they called “a beloved son, brother, uncle, and best friend”, who “loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people”.

After talking with people who knew him, and delving into the blogposts, diary writings, photos, and social media he left behind, a complicated picture emerges.

Chau’s decision to contact the Sentinelese, who have made it clear over the years that they prefer to be left alone, was indefensibly reckless. But it was not a spontaneous act of recklessness by a dim-witted thrill-seeker; it was a premeditated act of recklessness by a fairly intelligent and thoughtful thrill-seeker who spent years preparing, understood the risks, including to his own life, and believed his purpose on Earth was to bring Christ to the island he considered “Satan’s last stronghold”.

Chau was born in Alabama but grew up in Vancouver, Washington, near the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. He was raised by a Chinese father, a psychiatrist, and an American mother, an attorney, with two siblings. As a child he was consumed by two passions that became increasingly intertwined: outdoor adventure and Jesus Christ.

“[W]hen I was a little kid,” he recalled in 2015, “my family went camping”; during “that time of my life, I had a habit of eating wild things not meant for humans to eat, like bright red or stark white berries”. Consequently he “destroyed several sleeping bags that night. My family stopped going on camping trips after that.”

He loved survival stories, like Hatchet, Gary Paulsen’s gritty young adult novel about a boy forced to live off the land after crash-landing in the Alaskan wilderness. He came to count as heroes the naturalist John Muir, the explorer-missionary David Livingstone, and Bruce Olson, famous in the missionary community for converting the Bari people of South America.

Chau was raised in a Christian home and his family appear to have been members of the Assemblies of God, an international Pentecostal church whose members sometimes speak in tongues. He attended Vancouver Christian high school, a close-knit school with just 90 students across seven grades.

A natural overachiever, he thrived. He threw himself into clubs, charities and other extracurriculars. In the Royal Rangers, a Pentecostal scouting organization, he achieved a gold medal of achievement, a rank equivalent to Eagle scout; one of the medal’s requirements is reading or listening to the entire Bible.

He loved hiking, camping and travel, and he meticulously documented his exploration on social media. On Facebook, he was fond of quoting Jim Elliot, one of five missionaries killed by a tribe in Ecuador in 1956.

A mission trip to Mexico during high school was particularly formative. When he returned, he gave a short homily on his experiences. “We can’t be lukewarm,” he argued, shifting nervously but speaking with conviction. “We need to know how to defend our faith.”

“When we go out in our world, there are people that’ll just come and oppose us, and they’ll have questions, and they’ll have arguments … We can’t just, like, go out there unprepared. We need to know what we believe and why we believe it.”

It seems inevitable that Chau’s personality – God-fearing, outdoors-loving, and obsessed with pushing himself to extremes – would be attracted to being a missionary. He first read about the Sentinelese during high school, according to the New York Times, on a missionary database called the Joshua Project.

The Joshua Project entry for the Sentinelese describes them as “extremely isolated” and notes that the Indian government bans access to North Sentinel. The website suggests praying for the Indian government to allow Christians “to earn the trust of the Sentinelese people” and “live among them”.

In addition to “basic medical care”, the Sentinelese “need to know that the Creator God exists, and that He loves them and paid the price for their sins”.

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