From the New York Times comes this stunning report about the people who influenced and enabled John Allen Chau, the missionary who was killed recently by the ancient tribe he refused to leave alone. It’s unclear to what degree his family had a hand in what happened. Chau’s father Patrick, a psychiatrist, says he disagreed with his son on various religious matters and didn’t want him to travel to North Sentinel island, the tribe’s home.
But the people behind All Nations, an American evangelical group headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, were only too glad to give Chau Jr. and multiple others a crash course in converting wild heathens.
Just months before undertaking the most forbidding journey in his life as a young missionary to a remote Indian Ocean island, John Allen Chau was blindfolded and dropped off on a dirt road in a remote part of Kansas. After a long walk, he found a mock village in the woods inhabited by missionaries dressed in odd thrift-store clothes, pretending not to understand a word he said. His role was to preach the gospel. The others were supposed to be physically aggressive. Some came at him with fake spears, speaking gibberish.
That exercise, said [executive Mary] Ho of All Nations, was “designed to reflect an amalgamation of many different aspects of language and culture that a missionary might encounter in the field.”… It was part of an intensive and somewhat secretive three-week missionary training camp. … Ho said [that] “John was one of the best participants in this experience that we’ve ever had.”
Given that his would-be converts killed Chau within a day of his first unwelcome overture, I leave it to you to imagine the performance of the camp’s worst participants.
Also take a moment to ponder the term “meticulous planning” that the Times uses to describe Chau’s years-long preparations. He underwent linguistics training and studied to become an emergency medical technician. If Chau had truly been rigorous, would he have gotten himself killed right off the bat? What kind of linguistics training would’ve prepared him for successful communications with a tribe that is so remote and confrontational that literally no outsider knows their language? If he was well-equipped in the language department, why did he address the tribespeople in English and (you can’t make this up) Xhosa?
With something between relentless optimism and jaw-dropping hubris,
[Chau] was determined to translate the Bible into the language that the people on North Sentinel speak, which has stumped anthropologists who say it is unintelligible even to people who live on nearby islands.
And if, as reported, Chau studied to be an EMT, how could he not have known that he risked killing the people he purportedly wished to save, considering that they likely have no immunity to viral illnesses like measles, influenza, and the common cold?
It didn’t matter. Speaking of viruses, Chau was seized by a metaphorical one — a feverish, irrational passion to amass souls for his god, by hook or by crook.
It was an obsession. Ever since Mr. Chau had learned in high school through a missionary website, the Joshua Project, that the North Sentinel people were perhaps the most isolated in the world, he was hooked. Much of what he did the rest of his short life was directed toward this mission. He would pull up Google Maps and point to a green speck in a place no one had ever heard of — the Andaman Islands, far off the coast of India — and tell his friends with a buoyant smile: “I’m going there.” …
“My folks tried to talk him out of it,’’ said John Ramsey, a friend. “He said it was what he felt called to do, and he was pretty made up in his mind already so it didn’t seem like persuasion would do a lot of good anyway.”
Ramsey and other friends of Chau’s
Tellingly, one of Chau’s heroes was
… admitted they knew the mission was extremely dangerous — and illegal because for years the Indian government has prohibited outsiders from visiting the island. But they also said they were in awe of what he was trying to do, seeing Mr. Chau as a pure expression of their faith.
Jim Elliot, an American evangelical missionary killed in Ecuador.
In the Book of Matthew, the resurrected Jesus says: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” … [S]everal of Mr. Chau’s friends said that more than anything else, [this] explained why Mr. Chau did what he did.
I would’ve guessed that, over the past few decades, missionaries have been dwindling in number, but the Times says the opposite is true:
[M]ission work has soared. The number of American Christian missionaries going overseas has increased to around 130,000 today, from 57,000 in 1970, said Gina A. Zurlo, a research fellow at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs in Boston. The reasons, scholars say, are the rise of evangelicalism; an increase in the number of independent churches organizing their own missions; and the ease of travel.
In a sense, John Chau got what he wanted. In a note revealed after his death, he wrote,
“Remember, the first one to heaven wins.”
Meanwhile, Quartz India reports that All Nations has come under scrutiny for its role in Chau’s death, and for its culpability in endangering the lives of the Sentinelese.
All Nations claims that every year, its representatives train around 3,500 missionaries in 35 cities to learn “church planting,” so that “churches rapidly multiply through people groups” across the world.
… attempts to target isolated indigenous peoples, whom they often identify as “unreached people groups.” Recent interviews with All Nations’ leadership … reveal its complicity in some of the mission’s key failures — for example, the fact that Chau was illegally trying to proselytise while on a tourist visa, and that the steps he took to protect the Sentinelese from disease seem to have been woefully inadequate.
Plenty of Christians, like my friend Benjamin Corey, think this type of missionary work is beyond the pale (more about his take on Chau tomorrow). An Episcopal priest from Denver named Broderick Greer took to Twitter and wrote
A great fear of mine: That there would be those who frame Chau’s death as martyrdom. Going to an isolated, vulnerable tribe to “declare Jesus” and them defending their delicate ecosystem by killing you isn’t martyrdom.
Unfortunately I don’t agree. The young man was willing to give his life so these unreached people could here [sic] about Jesus. There [sic] eco system means nothing in comparison to eternity.
Well, there you have it. An isolated tribe’s ecosystem “means nothing” — and neither, ultimately, do their lives; because to some Christians, if it takes killing people to save them, that’s not only justified, it’s noble and necessary.
I’m with the North Sentinelese: such piety-peddling cut-throats are dangerous and abhorrent, and I want them only as close to me as the distance that a bow and arrow — or the modern equivalent — can almost bridge.
(image via Facebook)