On the Anniversary of His Death: My thoughts on John Chau

John Allen Chau / Instagram

The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.

Proverbs 16:4 ESV

At this time last year, I was introduced to John Chau. Unfortunately, that introduction came via news headlines and not in person, and I regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to meet John in person. I have been so encouraged by transcribing his journal (available here), I can only imagine how much I and my students would have benefited had I had the opportunity to know him personally.

The Background

John Chau was killed on or about November 16, 2018, as he attempted to access an unreached, unengaged people group (UUPG) on North Sentinel Island, a remote Island in the Indian Ocean. His reason for accessing these people was to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

News of Chau’s death, hit the news cycle pretty hard, though specifics dripped out slowly. I was bothered by much of the negative commentary by the big mission voices, some of whom are personal friends while others are friends via the books they have written. These are people I respect and I would happily let them speak in my classes. With very little information beyond the headline “Missionary Killed on Remote Island” many big names (and smaller names, too) made snap judgement’s about Mr. Chau as a person, describing him as a lone ranger, foolish, selfish, etc. Additionally, his missionary knowledge and skills were criticized with comments like he disregarded Jesus’ instruction about receptivity, he was unprepared, and he demonstrated no planning or strategy. Some also said that he harmed the reputation of missionaries around the world.

North Sentinel Island from above.

Admittedly, I had no more knowledge than most of those saying those things. But, I did have a suspicion that the quick and harsh assessments were likely wrong. The comments were unquestionably unkind. I can only guess why people were so quick to criticize in such a public way, but now one year later, I can say with much more conviction that much of the criticism was wrong. (It’s my personal opinion that some professionals owe John Chau an apology and their readers a retraction.)

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.

Proverbs 18:17 ESV

Some may wonder how I can be so bold to suggest that some owe Chau an apology. In addition to the overarching tenor of Scripture, two things have greatly informed my opinion of John Chau. First, the additional reporting beyond the original news of his death added more details about his mindset, his preparation, and his commitment to the mission (e.g., see this article by Alex Perry). The second thing was the time and effort of getting to know John through his journal entries from the last few days of his life. I’m thankful to John’s family who provided a pdf copy of his journal for people like me to read, and again, I offer my sincere condolences on this first anniversary of his death. (A pdf image of Chau’s original journal is available here. A pdf copy of my transcription of his journal is available here.)

Chau’s journal was scribbled out, and in certain places it was smudged by water. This made transcribing his notes very challenging at certain spots, and impossible at others. His penmanship was not great, but that was not the goal of his writing. His goal was to record his thoughts and passions about what he believed to be an eternal mission. Because of the importance of this document, I spent several hours transcribing, as best I could, John’s last thoughts. That document is available here.

John Chau / Instagram

The Questions

Perhaps the best way to share my thoughts on John’s thoughts and actions is in the form of Q&A. 

“What is your opinion of John Chau?”

I respect and honor the sacrifice of John Chau. As a born-again Christian, I want to have the “lay it on the line” passion for the glory of Christ that Mr. Chau showed in his willingness to go to the hard places and pay the ultimate price in his effort to share Christ with the Sentinelese.

As a husband and father, I want to lead my family in the same passionate commitment to “Know Christ and make him known.” I don’t hope that my children should die at the end of an arrow; though I do desire that they have such a commitment to Christ and his commission that they would pursue the lost with abandon in God’s sovereign care, even if that means a martyr’s crown (Rev. 2:10).

As the leader of the Missions/Intercultural Studies program at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, my prayer for and plea to my students is that they would catch the spirit of John Chau or John G. Paton who “claimed Aniwa for Jesus.” (Listen to John Piper’s biography of Paton – “You Will Be Eaten by Cannibals” – here.) Oh, that they would embrace the words of Jim Elliot: ” He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

“Do you believe John Chau was foolish or selfish to go to North Sentinel Island?”

Foolish? No. All of the professed Christians and non-Christians posting in Internet comment sections their disgust for Christians who “force” their beliefs on others notwithstanding, the Bible is the guide by which I must formulate an answer. And, the New Testament is abundantly clear that Christ-followers are to share their faith with those, both near and far, who are outside of faith in Christ. This includes the Sentinelese people. The usual “missions verses” immediately come to mind: Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:14-15; Luke 24:44-47; John 3:16, 20:21; Acts 1:7-8; Romans 10:13-15; and Revelation 7:9-10.

Interestingly, Chau mentioned some of these verses in his journal. For example, he alluded to John 3:16 and Matthew 28:18 in his first words to the Sentinelese (Journal, p. 3): “I hollered ‘My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you. Jesus Christ gave me authority to come to you. Here is some fish!’”

In the last missive to his family he revealed his motivation when he wrote, “This is not a pointless thing – the eternal lives of this tribe is at hand and I can’t wait to see them around the throne of God worshipping in their own language as Revelation 7:9-10 states” (Journal, p. 13).  

Some seem to think John was foolish for trying to reach the Sentinelese given the danger of doing so. However, Jesus didn’t say, “Make disciples of all nations, except those where it might be risky to do so.” Chau was well aware of the risk involved and took that into account both in his preparation and strategy.

Selfish? Hardly! An obvious example of his selflessness was his commitment to celibacy. His friend John Middleton Ramsey said that “Chau confided that he was avoiding romantic attachments because of his planned mission … He knew of the dangers of this place. He didn’t want any hearts to get broken should something go wrong.” Chau was a college graduate and had a variety of skills that could provide a nice standard of living. However, he chose to set those possibilities aside to follow what he believed to be Christ’s calling on his life.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

Matthew 16:24-26 ESV

“Was John Chau a Lone Ranger?”

Because John Chau approached the island alone, some immediately suggested that he was a Lone Ranger. That was not necessarily an unreasonable initial thought. But, it is one that should have been held in check until more information became available.

Dr. Mary Ho, International Executive Leader of All Nations, Chau’s mission agency, said that there was a team of people willing to go with Chau. However, it seems his decision to approach the island alone was based on his awareness of the risk involved in such a mission. He was concerned not only for the islanders, but also for the safety of his friends. Additionally, there may have been some strategic thinking in his solo approach. It’s reasonable to think that one person approaching the island might appear less threatening to the inhabitants than a group of people approaching.

Interestingly, while journaling on the afternoon of November 15, after having been shot by the young boy earlier in the day, John confessed to being both scared and frustrated. His frustration seemed to be at least partly directed toward JP who “won’t go with me and only stays on the vessel” (Journal, pg. 7). It remains unclear if that entry suggests an expectation or simply a desire for JP’s participation. And, his frustration may have only been directed toward his circumstances at that moment as he tried to determine whether he should continue the mission.

In an earlier entry in his journal he noted “me and two of the guys jumped in the shallows and brought my two Pelicans and kayak onto the northern point of the cove” (Journal, p. 2). So, to some degree, others were directly involved. I wonder if JP may have been one of those two guys.

“Was John Chau unprepared for such a venture?”

Much of the initial criticism of Chau – apparently based solely on the fact that he was killed – suggested that he lacked appropriate training and preparation for an effort of this kind. As more information surfaced, such conclusions had to be moderated. Ed Stetzer acknowledged this change in his Washington Post article: “These new reports at a minimum challenge the simplistic image of an adventure-seeking zealot willing to recklessly risk the lives of a remote group of islanders.”

Those who followed this story at the time discovered little-by-little that Chau had undergone a variety of trainings. He took a course in linguistics at SIL. He was an EMT with wilderness survival training. Chau studied anthropology and culture with All Nations. Additionally, he did extensive self-study on the history of the Sentinelese and similar tribes in the area.

Chau’s journal gives evidence of his training. He listened closely and noted the specific sounds of the islander’s language: “lots of high pitched sounds with [b] [p], [L] and [S] heard. Couldn’t quite get any words. Insults are probably exchanged a lot. Did not seem to understand Jarawa words I said” (Journal, p. 8). The Jarawa are a similar “stone age” tribe on a neighboring island, which anthropologists suggest also migrated from Africa tens of thousands of years ago. He noted elsewhere in his journal that in his interaction with the islanders he “yelled some phrase in Xhosa” (Journal, p. 5). This use of a South African language may have been connected to the anthropologists’ suggestion that the Sentinelese had migrated from Africa.

EMT training was evidenced by what he included in his “initial contact response kit (for arrow wounds) such as hemostat/quick clot, abdominal pads, chest seal, and dental forceps for arrow removal” (Journal, p. 4). Additional consideration of the health and well-being of the islanders was demonstrated by the fact that Chau underwent 13 inoculations and a period of quarantine prior to approaching the island.

The anthropological data in Chau’s journal reveals his interest to know and understand the people, and supports his friends’ suggestions that he truly intended to reside long-term on the island, slowly gaining trust from its inhabitants and greater understanding of them. All of this to be able eventually to share Christ. On the afternoon of November 15, the likelihood of his death seemed to be more apparent to Chau. I’m impressed that in that circumstance he was careful to make some specific anthropological observations in his journal – in addition to other similar information peppered throughout his journal entries. This information seems to be provided to whomever may come behind him after his death.

observations:

# of people in hut: ≈ 10 {illegible}

Language:  lots of high pitched sounds with
                   [b] [p], [L] and [S] heard. Couldn’t quite
                   get any words. Insults are probably exchanged a lot.
                   Did not seem to understand Jarawa words I said.

Gestures:   Arms in the air = unarmed, friendly?
                   Pointing with hand/finger (?) = pointing a location
                   Arrows in bow = ready to shot you

Environment

       Scenery   :   Beautiful cove, all mostly dead coral but clear
                            of dead coral bottom. Sand is [calcite] but
                            coarse. There’s an amazing surf break at
                            the south part of the entrance to the
                            cove. Saw 3 perfect sets of 4-6 foot
                            high swells {illegible} the {illegible} 200 yds or so.

{illegible} hut and dugouts point to a cultural practice.
It could also be from poacher as I have
seen numerous rocky coral that juts out of the
having lines thick wrapped and {illegible} ..

If they see something they like, they’ll take it (by force
if necessary). I wonder how many other folks have given
them something. And if they feel like it is expected or
due them?

Journal, p. 8

“Does it matter that the Indian government declared it a no-go zone?”

This is a fair and important question. Some Christians say Romans 13:1 is clear that we are to “be subject to the governing authorities.” Thus, Chau should not have gone within the no-go zone around the island. However, in Acts 5, Peter and John were reminded that they had been told not to preach in Jesus’ name. “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). Obeying God rather than man was definitely the thought of John Chau.

John Allen Chau / Instagram

“Are you saying John Chau is above criticism?”

No. I’m saying that we should be sober minded in criticizing his efforts. He gave his life to reach a people group that no one else was apparently attempting to reach. Furthermore, the evidence indicates that he prepared in significant ways for this mission effort.  

If you believe in heaven and hell then what he did was the most loving thing anyone could do.

John Middleton Ramsey

“How can we best honor John Chau’s efforts and sacrifice?”

My suggestion is threefold.  

First, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works …” (Hebrews 10:24). In the same way that Jim Elliot’s story stirred up love and good works in John Chau. Let’s use Chau’s story to stir up love and good works among us. Let’s learn about commitment to reach unreached people by listening to his heart and learning how he shaped his life to accomplish a holy task

Second, let’s think fairly about Chau’s preparation and strategy, then improve upon those things, if possible. Critical comments immediately offered to the media are not helpful to this end. In this case, much of the quick analysis was based on false assumptions. Now that we have more information sourced from the testimony of those who knew and interacted with John as well as his journal, we can actually evaluate his methods. For example, was English the best choice for first oral interaction? Was John’s decision to approach the island alone the best option? Were the gifts that he chose to offer the best options? These questions and many more are valid analytical questions, but should be asked after gaining more information. And for those who are wondering, I can make reasonable arguments for both a yes and no answer to each of those questions.  

Finally, let’s learn more about the North Sentinelese from what Chau recorded in his journal. He added fresh knowledge to that provided by previous visitors to the island. Learning about the Sentinelese as a teen is one of the things that God used to stir Chau’s heart toward reaching them for Christ. Perhaps God would do the same for us.

John Allen Chau, my new friend, rest in peace “in a place where the sun never sets.” Bask in the glory of the resurrected Christ whom you loved more than anything in this world.

Soli Gloria Deo

When the Bible Meets Life

As I was reading Proverbs 28 this morning, two verses stood out.

When the righteous triumph, there is great glory,
    but when the wicked rise, people hide themselves.

Proverbs 28:12 ESV

Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
    is a wicked ruler over a poor people.

Proverbs 28:15 ESV

When I read these verses my mind could not avoid the connection to this weekend’s news of the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “… when the wicked rise, people hide themselves,” is a perfect description of the conditions within the areas overtaken by ISIS. In an effort to survive under the rule of ISIS, thousands of people submitted and did their best to simply keep out of sight. Through the years of ISIS domination of the area reports would leak, describing the underground market for cigarettes, which were forbidden by ISIS. There were also reports of an underground communication network that was used to warn of the location of ISIS monitors moving about looking for those who might not be living according to ISIS standards. The people truly hid themselves to survive.

A roaring lion and charging bear are images of power and force. In verse 15, these images describe what it is like when a wicked person rules over a poor people. The rule of Abu Bakr Al-Badhdadi and ISIS could not be described more clearly than power and force. Whether that be demonstrated by the piles of severed heads of their victims put on display. As if to say, “this could happen to you.” Or, the infamous execution videos of their victims dressed in orange jumpsuits published by ISIS propaganda forces. Or, the brutal treatment of women, including kidnapping, rape, and murder, by ISIS soldiers from the lowest rank all the way to the top.

The Bible should not be regarded as an old book for a past generation. It’s a living book as relevant as today’s news. More relevant, actually.

RIP: Toni Doreen Childers

toni-300x72pxToni Doreen Childers died this morning after a long illness.

Toni was born April 7, 1937 in San Antonio and grew up in Goliad, Texas. Both cities influenced her interest in Texas history. She attended Baylor University where she studied theater and design and was selected 1955-56 Baylor Beauty. Baylor University is also where Toni met her husband to be, Donald Pope Childers.

After their marriage, the couple moved about the southern United States, following Donald’s assignments in the US Marine Corps. They eventually settled in Odessa, Texas where Donald continued his career as a lawyer until his death in 1978.

In addition to her interest in Texas history, Toni was a gifted artist and designer. She enjoyed drawing and designing and making clothes.

Toni was preceded in death by her parents, Alton and Teryel Griffin, and husband, Donald Pope Childers. She is survived by her sister Pat Holford (and husband Dean, Port Lavaca, TX); son Shannon (Leander, TX); daughter, Alison (The Woodlands, TX); and daughter Colleen Dunning (and husband Craig, Arlington, TX); grandchildren Christin, Asenith, Grace, and Zach; and four great grandchildren.

 

I know it’s just Twitter, but …

I know it’s just Twitter, and people say all kinds of “brave” things from behind a computer monitor, but these tweets accurately reflect the feelings/thoughts of a number of people in parts of the Middle East.

There is hope for a changed perspective, though; these were also the feelings of Respondent Four, who participated in my research. See his story here.

Screenshot 2014-09-26 06.28.32

Screenshot from https://twitter.com/abuaminah_

Israel Tour Highlight #137010: Repost

Beniko Gihon #137010

Beniko Gihon #137010

In honor of International Holocaust Day, I re-post this Israel tour highlight.

Working with tour groups in Israel is [almost] always a blessing. It’s exciting to see visitors’ faces when, as they say in Hebrew, “the coin falls.” In other words, when “the light comes on” or the connection between a certain event and place happens. I love to see the joy of discovery, especially as it relates to the Bible. But my groups generally have modern cultural and historical interests, too. Every group is different, and I’m regularly on the look out for things out of the ordinary, not on the itinerary that will make my group’s visit to Israel more special than it might already be. For this group, I found that special historical gem in the breakfast line.

As I approached the special-order egg line, I noticed the tattoo on his arm, 137010. Immediately, I knew he was a holocaust survivor because I’ve seen these tattoos in the museum, and probably a dozen times in person. However, I never had the nerve to ask the bearer to share his/her story; I just imagined what it might have been.

This time was different. I took a deep breath and asked the elderly gentleman a) if he spoke Hebrew, and b) if I could ask a question. “Yes,” he answered to both questions. I was hesitant, but I proceeded to ask if he would tell me the story of the numeric tattoo that appeared on his left forearm. I was afraid he would be embarrassed, but he wasn’t. In fact, he seemed pleased that I asked.

Beniko Gihon #137010

Beniko Gihon #137010

Interacting with my inquiry about his tattoo, he said, “My name is Beniko Gihon; in Germany my name was changed to 137010. I am a Jew originally from Greece.” He continued with a moving, two-minute version of his story. His family had been rounded up in Thessaloniki, and he was the only survivor. Over the course of five years, he was systematically transferred to/from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Warsaw Ghetto, and Dachau. He had a variety of jobs, but mainly focused on his work in the crematoria.

I was translating his story for a man from my group and noticed that others had started to lean in closer to listen in on our conversation, which indicated that they found this interesting, too. After a couple minutes, his eggs and mine were ready, so, unfortunately, we had to bring this encounter to a close. I thanked him for sharing his story, we shook hands, and parted ways.

I found a table near my group and sat down by myself. To say that his story was gut wrenching would be an exaggerated understatement. But, his story wasn’t the thing that affected me the most. It was the question he posed: “Why were the Christians so quiet?”

I wanted my group to hear Beniko’s story, but I wondered if that would be asking too much. As I ate my breakfast, I kept an eye on him from across the room and wondered whether I should ask him to speak on the bus. Since he didn’t seem to mind my initial inquiry, I decided to go for it, and the outcome was just what I had hoped.

After my group boarded the bus, I brought them up to speed on what was about to happen, then I introduced Mr. Beniko. He climbed the stairs and stood proudly in the front of the bus and began to share his story.

Beniko, which is the Greek version of Benjamin, started with some details of his family and how the Nazis came to Greece and killed so many. The rest were taken to the labor and death camps in Germany and Poland, which is where he learned to speak German, and where his name was changed to 137010.

His story lasted longer than I had given him, which I knew it would. But, seeing him standing in the front of the bus and hearing his biography was worth every minute.

Some specific details that pierced my heart:

“I saw, with my own eyes, the soldiers toss little children in the air and shoot them like birds.”

“As people were herded off the trains near the crematoria, they pleaded with the soldiers to know where their children or parents were. The soldiers would point to the smoke rising out of the crematoria and say, ‘there they are.’”

“The people were packed so tightly into the ‘showers’ that when the Zyklon B gas was released they all died standing, and only fell to the ground when the doors were opened. As we removed the bodies, we could see the scratches on the walls where those on the outer edges were trying to claw their way out.”

As a worker at the crematoria, “I collected the fat that came from the bodies as they were burned. The Nazis used the fat to make soap for us prisoners, and I bathed with soap that may have been made from the remains of my parents and other family members.”

Beniko’s story, made the horrors of the Holocaust real and personal for us, impacting each in a slightly different way. I tried to give some current perspective to his presentation because the easy thing would be to say, “I wasn’t there” because none of us were. I reminded the group of the words of James 1:27 that pure religion is to care for the widows and orphans, which I understand to mean “take care of those who can’t take care of themselves.” I also think that being born again demands that Christians have an active interest in “the least of these” (Mt 25).

 

%d bloggers like this: