Behind evangelist Chau’s fatal mission to the Sentinelese

Examining the life of evangelist John Allen Chau, a new documentary raises questions about faith, colonialism, and the right to remain uncontacted. 

Published : Feb 03, 2024 21:10 IST - 7 MINS READ

John Allen Chau in an undated image obtained from a social media post on November 23, 2018.

John Allen Chau in an undated image obtained from a social media post on November 23, 2018. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

November 15, 2018. A spectacular double rainbow arched over the North Sentinel Island, one of the islands in the Andamans archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. At the island’s southwest cove, a 26-year-old American evangelist, John Allen Chau, gingerly paddled his kayak over the dead coral reefs to spy on the islanders. He was on a mission to “declare Jesus” to the denizens of the forbidden island, which, according to him, was “Satan’s last stronghold.” Home to 50 to 100 Sentinelese people—the “world’s most isolated” tribe—the North Sentinel Island (approximately 60 sq. km), along with a five-kilometre coastal sea from the high water mark, is designated as a tribal reserve with strict entry prohibition for outsiders.

As Chau advanced towards the huts, the islanders—known for their resistance to contact—fiercely repelled him. One of them ascended a nearby coral rock and yelled at him, with Chau yelling back. Earlier that day, when Chau had first tried to contact the Sentinelese, they had chased him away. On his second attempt, a “little kid” shot an arrow into his Bible, making him retreat again. Undeterred, Chau returned the next day, only to be struck by an anticipated tragedy.

A tapestry of perspectives

The death of John Allen Chau at the hands of a secluded indigenous group on a remote Indian island made headlines worldwide. Chau’s quixotic mission was fervently condemned in print and visual media while fellow evangelists hailed him as a martyr. Why did Chau undertake the suicidal mission? A National Geographic documentary released in October 2023, titled The Mission, and directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, meticulously examines Chau’s life and death to understand his motivations.

Poster of The Mission.

Poster of The Mission. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The Mission weaves in many perspectives by interviewing 11 individuals, eight of whom knew Chau personally. It also incorporates the viewpoints of three experts. Daniel Everett, an American linguist and former Christian missionary turned atheist, shares insights from his decades-long association with the Pirahã indigenes in the Amazon rainforest. Adam Goodheart, an American historian who undertook an illegal journey to North Sentinel in the late 1990s, narrates his story while shedding light on the history of the Andamans. T.N. Pandit, an Indian anthropologist who spearheaded friendly contact missions with the Sentinelese from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, offers invaluable information.

The Mission pieces together Chau’s story by referring to his diaries, confidential plans, personal writings, social media posts, and his father’s letter to the filmmakers. Using animation, it reconstructs the lives of both Chau and his father, Patrick Chau, a psychiatrist.

Patrick Chau escaped Mao’s Cultural Revolution and found refuge in the US, where he battled the odds, married a local woman, and sired three children. John Chau, the youngest, found inspiration in books like Robinson Crusoe, Hatchet, The Sign of the Beaver, My Side of the Mountain, The Adventures of Tintin: The Broken Ear, all ofwhichgavehim a passion for the outdoors and the desire to live like a “wild man” in the forests. “I felt that this boy has been enchanted by the romantic spirit of the colonial era of explorations and adventures,” Patrick says in the film.

In addition to this, he received a strict Christian education, which shaped his moral values. When Chau’s school, Vancouver Christian High School, took him on a “mission trip” to Mexico, he returned home with a burning desire to carry out the Great Commission—“make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).”

In the 1950s, five Christian missionaries had ventured into Ecuador to convert the “hostile” Huaorani tribespeople. All were speared to death. Later, two female missionaries followed in their footsteps and succeeded in evangelising the Huaorani. The 2005 adventure drama, End of the Spear, narrated their story, and left Chau spellbound. 

In 2008, Chau learnt about the Sentinelese from the Joshua Project, described as “a research initiative seeking to identify the ethnic people groups of the world with the fewest followers of Jesus”. In the North Sentinel Island, Chau found the last frontier awaiting the light of Christ. “My heart sank, for his calling was based on fantasy,” says Patrick.      

The North Sentinel Island.

The North Sentinel Island. | Photo Credit: GAUTAM SINGH/ AP

Chau prepared for his journey to the North Sentinel for 10 years. “[T]his mission will be illegal. If God enables it to succeed, it will be among the most unique and amazing endeavours in the history of missions,” he exclaims. But it was not entirely Chau’s mission. He received training at the All Nations International—an evangelical organisation focused on preparing and sending individuals “to places to make disciples and to plant churches.” One of the members of All Nations, Pam Arlund, perversely reasons in the documentary that denying tribespeople an opportunity to say yes or no to Christ means denying them their human rights. She believed that the Sentinelese would accept Chau. Her colleague, Mary Ho, commended Chau as “one of the most prepared young men I have ever met.”

Scarred memory

“God, I don’t want to die. Who will take my place if I do?” despaired Chau in November 2018 after the Sentinelese violently resisted his second attempt at contact. “Why did a little kid have to shoot me today?”

The Sentinelese’ hostility towards strangers, often misconstrued as wickedness, is a survival strategy. Long before British colonists scarred the memory of the Sentinelese by kidnapping (and killing) tribespeople of the Andaman islands, the Chinese, Malay and Burmese had regularly visited the islands on slaving expeditions. In The Mission, an individual from the Onge tribe describes the tomayu, the evil spirit, thus: “He captures men… He may rise from the sea or from anywhere. He comes hunting for men. He takes them away. To his place.”

The Mission also acknowledges the National Geographic’s role in exoticising isolated indigenous peoples such as the Sentinelese. In the 1970s, the magazine team visited North Sentinel, taking hundreds of images of the islanders. In some pictures, the Sentinelese are standing peacefully and observing the strangers. However, the published images depicted them as violent—armed and ready to shoot. Pandit fittingly reasons, “Violence is not only killing someone. Violence is: you are made to do things against your will. Violence is using harsh words [and images] while describing them [the Sentinelese].”

Fine line

Through Chau’s story, The Mission inspires debate on the ethical dimensions of evangelical undertakings, exploring the complex interplay between faith and cultural imposition. The purveyors of the Great Commission, such as Mary Ho of All Nations, stubbornly envision only one future for all— “One day, every tongue, every tribe, every nation will be worshiping God around his throne.” Such religious zeal has robbed several indigenous peoples of their cultures and worldviews. A Pirahã elder says in the documentary, “[Biblical] God is a foreigner [to us]. We don’t know him. We don’t want him.”

The Sentinelese people in the North Sentinel Island.

The Sentinelese people in the North Sentinel Island. | Photo Credit: PTI

Patrick, himself a Christian, aptly denounces the Great Commission as a “biblical-based slogan distorted for the hidden colonial or imperialist agenda (sic).” Everett acknowledges the adverse impact of missionary work, saying, “I felt guilty and unethical… I realised I am not helping them. I am hurting them… So I not only abandoned the faith, but I am very much against missionary activity.” 

Our present-day world, marred by religious extremism, has much to learn from The Mission, which encapsulates its message thus: “There’s a fine line between faith and madness.” However, the documentary’s hurried ending inadvertently paints the Sentinelese in a poor light by suggesting that Chau was dead on his second attempt. In reality, Chau had visited the island four times, establishing contact thrice. And the Sentinelese had warned Chau repeatedly before resorting to lethal measures.

Ajay Saini is Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He works with remote indigenous communities.

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