In mid-November, missionary John Allen Chau, 26, was killed during attempts to preach to the community of North Sentinel Island.
Located in the Bay of Bengal among the Andaman Islands, North Sentinel Island is one of the most isolated places on Earth. There, about 50-100 people, referred to as the “Sentinelese,” live as a hunter-gatherer community, with a diet consisting mostly of turtles and fish. The Sentinelese language is unknown and the people’s origin is also mysterious; however, anthropologists believe that the Sentinelese migrated from Africa tens of thousands of years ago.
Chau’s missionary journey to North Sentinel Island has raised many critical questions among many groups, including anthropologists, missionaries, and church groups. The core question raised by Chau’s endeavor concerns how the modern world should interact with isolated people groups, if at all.
Chau had been determined to bring Christianity to North Sentinel Island after reading, on a missionary website called the Joshua Project, that the Sentinelese are one of the most unreached peoples in the world. According to the Joshua Project, the term “unreached people” refers to “a people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group without outside assistance.”
Chau undertook several short-term missionary trips to prepare for his journey to North Sentinel Island. He coached soccer in South Africa and worked in Kurdistan with Syrian and Iraqi refugees, according to The Kansas City Star.
Chau also intellectually prepared himself for his journey to the Sentinelese. In 2014, Chau graduated from Oral Roberts University, a fundamentalist Christian school. The New York Times reports that from 2015 on, Chau made periodic trips to the Andaman Island chain in order to better immerse himself in the culture and lifestyles of the peoples whom he hoped to convert to Christianity. Last year, Chau took a summer course at the Canada Institute of Linguistics in British Columbia. There, he spent many hours attempting to translate the Bible into the language of the Sentinelese.
In October 2017, Chau underwent a three-week intensive training program with an international Christian ministry called All Nations, which is based in Kansas City.
The New York Times details that on Nov. 14, 2018, Chau, with the help of a local evangelist, hired five local fishermen for $325 to smuggle him from Port Blair, India to North Sentinel Island. (The Indian government has prohibited outsiders from visiting the island). Half a mile out from North Sentinel Island, Chau left the fishermen to finish the remaining journey alone in a makeshift kayak.
Chau attempted to communicate with the Sentinelese people three times. He first approached on foot and tried to shout in their language, “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.” The islanders threatened Chau with readied bows and arrows, forcing Chau to retreat. Several hours later, Chau approached the Sentinelese again, bearing gifts of scissors and safety pins. After a young boy shot an arrow into Chau’s Bible, Chau retreated again. On Nov. 16, Chau tried one last time. There is no definite knowledge of what happened on this third attempt. On the morning of Nov. 17, the fishermen spotted the Sentinelese dragging Chau’s dead body offshore.
Authorities have been unable to recover Chau’s body, and the five fishermen who aided Chau have been arrested.
Chau’s family, meanwhile, calls for the forgiveness of Chau’s killers and for the release of the fishermen, according to The Kansas City Star.
In his last journal entry, Chau requested, “Please do not be angry at [the Sentinelese] or at God if I get killed.”