John Chau redux: The Guardian locates slain missionary's angry dad and several crucial facts

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John Chau, the young American missionary who died last fall while trying to convert the hostile natives on an island in the Andaman Sea east of India, caused quite a lot of international comment after he passed.

Most media moved on, eventually, but three months after the fact, the Guardian has come out with a late obituary that includes an interview with Chau’s father. Until now, Chau’s parents, who are based in Vancouver, Wash., have remained silent.

Finally, one journalist got the dad to talk.

When Chau’s death became international news, many Christians were keen to disavow his actions; Chau’s father believes the American missionary community is culpable in his son’s death. John was an “innocent child”, his father told me, who died from an “extreme” vision of Christianity taken to its logical conclusion.

All Nations, the evangelical organization that trained Chau, described him as a martyr. The “privilege of sharing the gospel has often involved great cost”, Dr Mary Ho, the organization’s leader, said in a statement. “We pray that John’s sacrificial efforts will bear eternal fruit in due season.”

Ho also told news organizations that Chau had received 13 immunizations, though Survival International, an indigenous rights group, disputes that these would have prevented infection of the isolated Sentinelese people. The Sentinelese, hunter-gatherers who inhabit North Sentinel Island in the Andaman island chain, are considered one of the Earth’s last uncontacted peoples; their entire tribe is believed to number several dozen people.

Why is the Guardian telling this story so late in the game?

The reporter explains that it took awhile to dig the truth up. J. Oliver Conroy is a New York-based writer whose major topics are “ US politics, the far right, religion, Donald Trump, US crime.”

After talking with people who knew him, and delving into the blogposts, diary writings, photos, and social media he left behind, a complicated picture emerges.

Chau’s decision to contact the Sentinelese, who have made it clear over the years that they prefer to be left alone, was indefensibly reckless. But it was not a spontaneous act of recklessness by a dim-witted thrill-seeker; it was a premeditated act of recklessness by a fairly intelligent and thoughtful thrill-seeker who spent years preparing, understood the risks, including to his own life, and believed his purpose on Earth was to bring Christ to the island he considered “Satan’s last stronghold”.

There are a few odd simplifications in the piece, including some mistakes that someone with religion-beat experience would not make.

The Assemblies of God is not a Pentecostal church, it’s a denomination. The writer says Oral Roberts University is evangelical, which is true, but it’s also very Pentecostal. There’s a “Bob” mentioned in the story who’s not identified. Then there’s the interview with Chau’s dad.

Like his son, Dr Patrick Chau is a graduate of Oral Roberts, an evangelical university in Oklahoma. I had thought he might want to defend evangelical doctrines against the unsympathetic media coverage sparked by his son’s death. In an email, however, he called religion “the opium of the mass[es]”.

“If you have [anything] positive to say about religion,” he told me, “l wish not to see or hear” it. He said his son’s zeal was a longstanding point of contention and that they’d agreed not to talk about John’s missionary work.

“John is gone because the Western ideology overpowered my [Confucian] influence,” he said. He blamed evangelicals’ “extreme Christianity” for pushing his child to a “not unexpected end”, and he referred with particular bitterness to the Great Commission, Jesus’s injunction that Christians spread the gospel to all peoples.

That’s one unusual ORU grad.

Looks like the father shed his Christianity sometime back if he’s talking up Confucianism these days.

I’m curious what the rest of the family thought and if the reporter flew to Vancouver to track them down. Or what about their congregation and its pastor? Again, when you have three months to work on a story, that kind of research is possible.

The elder Chau’s reaction fits in with the media narrative of John Chau being some imperialist spreader of hated Western values.

Well, some values are worse than others, it appears. This BreakPoint commentary says that Chau’s main crime was being politically incorrect and that the American government has pushed its ideologies on abortion and gay rights on unsuspecting overseas natives and no elite media outlets have complained about that.

The Guardian correspondent seems to view Christians of Chau’s ilk as odd zoo animals that need an explainer for clueless atheistic British readers.

The United States sends the most Christian missionaries abroad of any country, according to Reuters – almost 130,000 in 2010. Although many denominations send missionaries, the most visible are Mormons – 70,000 per year, according to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – and evangelical Protestants.

A large and sophisticated apparatus exists to assist Americans interested in proselytizing. The universe includes organizations like WorldVenture, which provides support services, training, and life insurance for missionaries, and Wycliffe, which is working to translate the Bible into every language. Databases such as People Groups and the Joshua Project gather information on what evangelicals call “unreached people groups”.

For an article that took three months to research, there’s way too much quoting from the New York Times. Three months is more than enough time to find your own sources but it looks like the reporter didn’t move an inch outside of the Big Apple.

Still, there are some good details I didn’t see in most other media accounts.

Hoping it would lessen the risk of accidentally infecting the Sentinelese, he entered a self-imposed quarantine. For 11 days he went without direct sunlight. He prayed, exercised, and read The Lives of the Three Mrs Judsons, a 19th-century missionary account.

On the night of 14 November, he and some fishermen – Christians who had agreed to help – set out in darkness for North Sentinel, carefully avoiding coastguard vessels. Their journey was illuminated by glowing plankton, Chau wrote, and around them fish jumped “like darting mermaids”. They reached North Sentinel late at night and anchored nearby.

The rest of the piece sets out what Chau’s last three days looked like. I do think it succeeds in making the case that Chau wasn’t some mindless evangelical bot but a person who knew the risks.

I’m curious if he warned his family that he was embarking on this potentially fatal trip. Is the father bitter partly because the family got blamed for this risky and politically incorrect venture?

It’s a shame that none of the local print media (the Oregonian, Vancouver Columbian or Willamette Week) didn’t use their proximity to ferret out this story. I’ve yet to see anything creative come out of them.

Eliza Griswold’s New Yorker piece on Chau, which came out a few weeks after his Nov. 17 death, does a better job of reflecting the mixed feelings many Christian missionaries had about John Chau. She wrote:

In October, a Baptist missionary named Charles Wesco was killed in Cameroon amid fighting between the military and a separatist movement, but his death received markedly less attention. Now there was Chau, an outlier who was breaking the law and distorting traditional missionary work. For many Christians, it was difficult to weigh the morality of his actions.

I know most media coverage reflected a lot of revulsion for what Chau did and most reporters quickly moved on within a week. But there’s lots of mission groups that are quietly doing similar stuff to what Chau is doing and as I wrote two years ago, dying as a result and getting little to no coverage.

These sources aren’t hard to find. I’m hoping more journalists will make the effort.

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