A Friend Reflects on John Chau’s Journey to Remote North Sentinel Island

It has been almost 6 weeks since reports of John Chau’s death at the hands of a remote island tribe in the Indian Ocean made international news. With Christmas here, perhaps it is time to revisit John’s story in light of the Christmas story.

The lesser known version of the Christmas story can be found in the first chapter of the gospel of John, wherein it says “he came to those who were his own, yet His own did not recognize him.”

On November 15th and 16th of this year, a 26-year-old man named John Chau went to those whom he saw as his own and he too was rejected. This led to an international discussion about Mr. Chau’s decisions, his preparedness and his purpose in going to North Sentinel Island. Initial articles depicted him as a foolish American millennial who was little more than an adrenaline junkie with a penchant for making foolish decisions. He has been presented in various forms of media as a highly unprepared, culturally uneducated and naive young man who may have “gotten what he deserved” for daring to penetrate an Island utopia isolated for many thousands of years. However, in the ensuing weeks new information has emerged which profoundly challenges those initial portrayals. It is still reasonable and worthwhile to ask who John was and what was his purpose in going to North Sentinel Island. Was John merely a rogue “adventurer” harboring an unspoken death wish who foolishly went to a remote Island in the Indian Ocean to kick a soccer ball around with the most isolated tribe on the planet or is it possible he was someone much more?

The primary weakness of the articles written in the first days after Chau’s tragic passing is that they significantly misrepresented his intentions and his purpose. This fact is perfectly reasonable given the scarcity of material facts initially known about the situation. Writing about John Chau in the early days after his death was certainly difficult and even today is no easy task. Trying to understand who John was from his Instagram page and a few scattered and sometimes conflicting facts is challenging. It is for this reason I hope to clear up a few of those misunderstandings and to address John’s motives in going to North Sentinel Island. Let me mention here that I did know John, though not very well. I had the chance to meet him overseas several years ago when he was visiting our community with a team of short-term missionaries. Since that time, I have both kept up with his journey and corresponded with him sporadically. I also received his monthly update letters in the years since meeting him.

Anyone who knew or met John would describe him as a warm and engaging young man who had a deep love for God that came out in his love for others. He was also a gentle person defined by his clarity of thought and focus. That’s not to suggest that John wasn’t adventurous, because by any regular standard, he clearly was. He had climbed mountains, scuba dived, traversed jungles and visited multiple far-flung corners of the earth in his quest to be prepared for the calling he was convinced he had received from God. But to reduce John’s identity to merely an “adventurer” would be like describing a policeman who is a cycling enthusiast that rides on weekends and holidays as a “cyclist.” Imagine if that same officer, while cycling through his city one Saturday turned down a street in which rival gangs were fighting and instinctively screamed “STOP!” but was immediately shot dead. News reports that came out following this incident might read “Cycling Enthusiast Attempts to Stop Gang Violence and is Shot Dead.” We may even see people speculating about the foolish nature of a cyclist trying to stop a gang fight while wearing spandex. Some would cruelly laugh and mock such a “foolish” person and twitter would come alive with fresh memes mocking the spandex moron who tried to stop gangs from doing what they do. The analogy isn’t perfect by a long shot and I do recognize that police officers have very precise protocols they would follow to the tee, regardless of the context. Yet his analogy rightly depicts how those of us who knew John feel about the way he has been described. His life and reputation have been mischaracterized and then thrust into the public eye to be scrutinized by the world when so little of the actual facts were known. When the full truth is known, however, it paints quite a different picture than the one presented in the days immediately following John’s death.

Agree with him or not, John did not make a rash decision to head to North Sentinel Island on November 15th. As it turns out, John determined back in high school almost 10 years ago that he wanted to bring the gospel to those who had never heard. Countless young Christians, in their youthful exuberance, go through a “stage” of their faith wherein they too desire to reach the unreached with the gospel. Most of these move on to other goals which draw their attention away, but John wasn’t like most people. He held on to his love for the North Sentinelese through college and began taking every opportunity to prepare himself for such a radical calling and purpose for his life even these past few years after college.

So what is the truth about John Chau? Some have accused him of being a social media millennial who had an addiction to adventure with a bit of religion added on for good measure. Others have suggested he was little more than a glory hound seeking international fame by visiting an anthropological treasure trove like North Sentinel Island. The most generous of his detractors have accused him of having a great lack of wisdom and being naive to the point of foolishness.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Daniel Wesley