It’s like something out of a Hollywood horror flick. A young, likeable man with his whole life before him, felt a calling to a higher purpose.
He set his sights on adventure and traveled across the globe, sneaking his way onto a remote island in India where he could enact a higher purpose by introducing the island natives to Christ. What was supposed to be a divine intervention became a mortal tragedy.
John Chau’s final journal entry:
“Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed,
I love you all.”
A Thrill Seeker’s Divine Calling
“We can’t just call ourselves Christians and then the next day just be like, ‘Yeah, you know, let’s go to a party and get drunk and get high, whatever, get wasted, and live a lifestyle that’s totally against what Christ has called us to do.’ We actually have to do something.” – Quote from Chau in a YouTube video following his evangelical rite of passage trip to Mexico
The story of John Chau began one day in 1990s Portland, Oregon when an adolescent Chau happened to be rummaging through his psychiatrist father’s study. While flicking through his father’s desk, something caught his attention: a dusty, old edition of the classic novel Robinson Crusoe, the tale of a shipwrecked sailor stranded on a supposedly deserted island.
No one could have known Chau’s fate would end up so similarly to that of his favorite story book character.
Chau would eventually grow into a 26-year-old capable explorer, adventure blogger and evangelical Christian. But the childhood memory of the daring castaway, Robinson Crusoe, washing up on a tropical island was a fantasy Chau wouldn’t be able to escape alive.
Chau believed in a divine calling, that God personally selected him to save the souls of those who were yet to be introduced to Christ. Chau found his calling while attending Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The private evangelical university claimed to harbor the goal of cultivating evangelistic capability among its students.
While attending “God’s University,” Chau enrolled in courses such as History of Missions in which students were taught to engage with people from another culture. The idea to provide students with a basic understanding of the language, history, culture, and customs of a community so when the students were sent on mission trips, they would attain the necessary tools to inform people of Jesus.
To some, mission trips are seen as an artifact of imperialism, an ancient practice that has been dying out for ages. The reality is, America continues to dispatch large numbers of missionaries abroad every year. Mix in the freed-up time caused by spring break, the ease of air travel and the core belief for some Christians that missionary work is a “divine obligation,” the practice has been more active than ever.
After returning from his “evangelical rite of passage” trip to Mexico, Chau was ready to share the word of God on his own. He browsed through JoshuaProject.com, which provided categorized lists of unconverted peoples. It was that day when Chau read an entry on a group of people known as the Sentinelese, an uncontacted tribe living separated from society on an Island in the Indian Ocean. The group actively resists outsiders who approach the island and will not stride away from murder if it means preserving their way of life.
The warnings would have little to no effect on Chau who was a passionate and determined individual. Chau’s father, Patrick, overheard his son telling friends that it was his “calling” to introduce the Sentinelese to God. Patrick would later write, “I hoped that he would have matured enough to rectify the fantasy before it was too late.”
Satan’s Last Stronghold
“LORD is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had a chance to hear Your Name?” – One of the final excerpts from Chau’s journal found on Sentinelese Island
Chau set out for his final mission trip in November of 2018, he spent the first 11 days isolated in quarantine as he waited for any lingering illnesses or microbes on him to dissipate so that he wouldn’t risk sickening and/or possibly exterminating the Sentinelese population.
The Sentinelese tribe has been declared off limits territory for years in an effort to preserve the native’s culture, prevent biological genocide due to the Sentinelese lack of modern antibodies and to deter travelers from meeting an early death at the end of a 2 ½ meter (8 feet) Sentinelese bamboo arrow.
Information on the tribe is virtually nonexistent, experts range the population size from 50 to 100 people but there could even be as many as 1,000. Indian policy for the island is basically “live and let live,” for the protection of both the Sentinelese people and the people of the modern world.
Chau was aware of the illegal nature of his mission and planned accordingly. He made arrangements with Christian locals to sneak him onto the island by transporting on their 30-foot wooden boat under the cover of darkness, slipping past both the Navy and Coast patrol.
Chau had prepped his already physically fit mountain climber’s body for the journey as well as his mind, he was spiritually prepared to withstand the trials and tribulations ahead of him.
After spending the night anchored just along the reef of the island, Chau removed his wilderness survival supplies, a waterproof Bible, and a kayak from the boat before paddling his way to the shore. It wasn’t long before his presence was felt on the island, two dark-skinned men in loincloths came rushing out of the jungle, shouting words from a lexicon that only the Sentinelese could understand.
From his kayak, Chau could see the men holding both a bow and arrows in preparation for the intruder.
“My name is John. I love you, and Jesus loves you. Jesus Christ gave me the authority to come to you.” he shouted in English.
Chau presented a tuna to the natives in a sign of peace. Whether it was lost in translation or a futile attempt to charm a population with its clear distaste for outsiders, Chau’s attempts at coming ashore peacefully remained a pipe dream.
The natives loaded their arrows. In a panic, Chau threw the tuna to the shore. While the natives retrieved his gift, he paddled back to the boat that was still anchored a few miles farther from the shore. Chau’s terror, tainted by his interpretation of “his calling,” quickly transformed to dissatisfaction and a motivation to return to the island later that day. Chau wasn’t ready to give up his divine calling.
It is not clear exactly how many trips Chau made back and forth from the boat to the island but eventually, the encounters become more aggressive. At one point, Chau managed to set foot on the white-sand beaches. He attempted to hand over a fish and other supplies to a young Sentinelese boy who responded with a precise shot from his bow, landing an arrow “directly into my Bible which I was holding.”
Chau’s journal entries expressed positivity, frustration, scientific conclusions, terror, and occasional humor. By this point of the adventure, he was beginning to waver as the fear crept in again.
Nevertheless, he persisted.
According to the fisherman who transported Chau to the island via boat, on Nov. 16 Chau expressed that he planned to stay on the island overnight and that the fisherman shouldn’t join him. They obediently sped off leaving Chau alone on the island.
The next day, the fisherman motored past the island and was horrified to witness the Sentinelese dragging John Chau’s body on the beach and buried him in the sand.
Unfortunately, this is where most of the information regarding the incident ends. No one knows for sure what happened to Chau or even if it was his body that the Sentinelese were dragging. Police suspected the most likely cause of death was bow and arrow injuries since it’s the Sentinelese preferred form of defense. Today, the body buried remains on the island, it hasn’t been retrieved for fear of meeting a similar fate as that of Chau.
Opinions on Chau, his actions and the resulting consequence vary between calling him a God-fearing fanatic who pushed his views too hard and paid the price, to humble martyr who sacrificed his life for the greater good of sharing the gospel.
No matter how one defines the actions that led to Chau’s death, his hecatomb should serve as a warning not only about the dangers of missionary trips taken to proclaim Christianity to isolated peoples or those who aren’t interested in converting to another religion, but the dangers what can happen when a person becomes so devoted to a religious calling that they become deluded about their own mortality.
No one said it better than All Nations, the evangelical community which trained Chau for his missionary endeavors, “the privilege of sharing the gospel has often involved great cost.”