A 26-year-old graduate of Oral Roberts University who had previously been on mission trips to Israel and South Africa was killed attempting to preach the gospel on a remote, protected Indian island. Now authorities aren’t sure how to retrieve his body.
John Allen Chau had wanted to preach to the people living on North Sentinel, a protected island in the Andaman Sea, since high school. But the Sentinelese have historically just wanted to be left alone.
According to the New York Times the Sentinelese have a long history of being harassed by outsiders, often bringing disease and death. One of the first recorded interactions with the Sentinelese comes from an account of a 19th century British naval officer, who took humans from the island as if they were souvenirs:
Fascinated, the officer, Maurice Vidal Portman, basically kidnapped several islanders. He took them back to his house on a bigger island, where the British ran a prison, and watched the adults grow sick and die. After returning the children to the island, he ended his experiment, calling it a failure.
In recent years, the Indian government has taken steps to cordon off the Manhattan-sized island in order to preserve the Sentinelese culture and to protect its inhabitants (rumored to be between 50 and 100) from disease. The Indian Navy patrols the water around North Sentinel, and the last outsiders who washed ashore, a pair of fishermen in 2006, were also killed.
Chau paid local fishermen to take him close enough to paddle to shore in a kayak. On his three attempts to visit the island, the Sentinelese sometimes laughed at him, sometimes just stared, and once, shot an arrow through the waterproof Bible he held. The New York Times published this excerpt from a diary Chau kept:
“Two armed Sentinelese came rushing out yelling,” he wrote in the letter. “They had two arrows each, unstrung, until they got closer. I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.’”
He gave them some fish, but the islanders kept coming toward him: “I turned and paddled like I never have in my life,” he said.
“I felt some fear but mainly was disappointed,” he admitted. “They didn’t accept me right away.”
On November 16, Chau gave his diary to the fishermen, assuring them that he’d be fine to stay on the island overnight. On November 17, the fisherman saw the islanders burying Chau’s body in a shallow grave.
Now, authorities are left with legal, cultural, and epidemiological issues around recovering Chau’s remains. Dependra Pathak, a police official in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, explained the problems to CNN:
“The mission was done from a distance to avoid any potential conflict with the tribespeople as it’s a sensitive zone.” [...] “There are legal requirements as well which we need to keep in mind while carrying out the operation. We are also studying the 2006 case where two local fishermen were killed. The bodies were recovered then.”
One of the written goals for Oral Roberts University’s mission program is to bring Jesus “to the lost and hurting” for a “sustainable impact on discipleship and community development, and we see the Kingdom moving forward.”
There are echoes of those ideas in Chau’s diary, but there’s fear and doubt too:
In one passage, he asked God if North Sentinel was “Satan’s last stronghold.” In another: “What makes them become this defensive and hostile?”
“It’s weird — actually no, it’s natural: I’m scared,” Mr. Chau wrote. “There, I said it. Also frustrated and uncertain — is it worth me going a foot to meet them?”
He added, “I don’t want to die!