By Andrew Woodrow
The death of missionary John Allen Chau has sparked arguments among Christians. Some call the young man impulsive, while others admire his commitment to reach unreached people with the gospel. Many are comparing Chau to another missionary killed in South America more than 60 years ago.
On Nov. 17, Chau was reportedly struck and killed by arrows from a Sentinelese tribe living on a remote island off the Bay of Bengal. Born in Washington state, he had been intrigued by the tribe since his teenage years. He chose his college degree to prepare him for his mission. He underwent linguistic training, participated in global missions, refrained from romantic relationships, and later joined the mission-sending agency All Nations.
After arriving in the region in early November, Chau paid fishermen to take him on trips where he attempted to befriend the Sentinelese with gifts, songs, and declarations of Jesus’s love. Chau wrote of his fear in returning to the island for his third visit (and his first overnight one), but reassured himself that the tribe’s eternal lives mattered more. The next morning, when Chau’s companions sailed near the island, they saw his body being dragged on the beach.
For its striking similarity, Chau’s death has been compared to that of five missionary martyrs in 1956, among them the well-known Jim Elliot. Elliot also devoted his early years to preparing for missions. He and his team sought to evangelize the Huaorani tribespeople in Ecuador. They were killed by warriors’ arrows soon after first contact. Elliot journaled extensively of his desire to reach the lost tribe, and his work was continued successfully after his death by his wife, Elisabeth.
But Jim Elliot was celebrated, while Chau has been criticized.
Wheaton College’s Ed Stetzer said he imagines Elliot would receive very different treatment today. “People are much more negative about missions, partly because of mistakes missionaries have made, such as colonialism, a lack of cultural awareness, and more.”
But, “As Elliot wrote (and Chau experienced), ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose,’” Stetzer wrote. “Here at Elliot’s alma mater, we still believe and train missionaries. To some, that makes us the fools. But…if that makes us fools, we will be ‘fools for Christ.’”
– IBSA’s Andrew Woodrow was a missionary kid, living with his family in Mozambique