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NPR 2018-11-29

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Killing Of American Missionary Ignites Debate Over How To Evangelize


Police in India say there's no plan yet to recover the body of an American missionary. He was killed 10 days ago by indigenous people on a remote island in the Bay of Bengal. The islanders have resisted all outside contact for centuries. The missionary, John Allen Chau, went there alone hoping to convert them to Christianity. NPR's Tom Gjelten says his killing has ignited a debate in Christian circles over how to evangelize.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: North Sentinel Island and others in the Andaman chain were apparently settled more than 50,000 years ago. The islanders' lives have barely changed since then. No one knows what language the North Sentinelese speak. They are believed to be related to the Jarawa people on a nearby island. Like the Sentinelese, the Jarawa have long been hostile to outsiders, but a documentary crew last year released a short film about them called "We Are Humanity." We live quietly in the forest, and we are happy, one said. Another told of a time they killed people who intruded into their territory.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

GJELTEN: "We stretched our bows," he said. "We don't like the outside world." John Allen Chau, who was 26, apparently faced that same fate on North Sentinel. After islanders shot arrows at him on his first attempt to reach the island, he retreated in his canoe. I'm scared, he wrote in his journal. Is it worth me going? But he decided it was. He was promptly killed.

MARY HO: It was his life's mission to go to the island and share the goodness of Jesus Christ.

GJELTEN: Mary Ho is the international director of a Christian mission group, All Nations, that gave some support to Chau's effort. She says that from the time he was 18, Chau had been determined to reach North Sentinel despite an Indian government prohibition on travel there.

HO: He got trained as a wilderness EMT, trained in linguistics and cultural anthropology, then was further trained through our program.

GJELTEN: Ho repeatedly declined to say whether her organization approved of Chau's mission.

HO: Well, we were very comfortable that he was extremely well-prepared.

GJELTEN: Did you know how dangerous it was?

HO: Well, here in All Nations, we do know it was very dangerous.

GJELTEN: You felt comfortable nevertheless with him going there.

HO: Well, we know that John Chau was extremely well-prepared.

GJELTEN: Among evangelicals, Chau's effort has provoked controversy. Some note he could have carried disease-causing germs to the North Sentinelese people who would be without immunities. Thomas Kidd is a historian of religion at Baylor University.

THOMAS KIDD: If it is true that he was just setting out his own and patently breaking the law, then I think most Christians would say, no, that this is not the right way to go about missionary work.

GJELTEN: Chau's killing is reminiscent of an incident in Ecuador in 1956 when five American missionaries attempting to make contact with indigenous people were killed. Kathryn Long, a retired history professor at Wheaton College, has a new book about that case, "God In The Rainforest." She says missionaries have drawn lessons from what happened in Ecuador.

KATHRYN LONG: And that's one of the things that perplexes me with Mr. Chau - is it seems like he was repeating things that many missionaries have stopped doing. For example, he didn't know the language. That was one of the problems that the missionaries had in 1956. Many more missionaries today would not attempt to reach a group of isolated, violent people without trying to figure out some way to learn the language.

GJELTEN: Advocacy groups for indigenous people go further. They generally say the people should be left alone - period. On that point, Kathryn Long says many Christian missionaries would not agree. They have such passion for Christ, she says, that they see spreading Christianity as more important than preserving an unchanged culture. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.


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