When 26-year-old missionary, John Allen Chau, approached North Sentinel Island on the evening of November 16, I imagine he felt a lot like I did — on my wedding day. I was 19 when I got married, and a nervous wreck. “J.” had been my first boyfriend, and when he asked me to marry him three months after we started courting, my initial reaction was to run. Though I had my doubts, I married J. anyway, vomiting as soon as the ceremony finished.
The comparison of my wedding day to Chau’s death may sound trite — hear me out. Having read some of Chau’s last writings, I believe he suffered from the same mindset that propelled me down the aisle. I married J. despite my anxiety because I thought that this was what God wanted me to do. As an evangelical Christian, I valued obedience, self-denial, and an unwavering commitment to do hard things for Jesus. Saying “no” to Jesus was not an option.
Based on this type of thinking, I regarded many of the “good” things I didn’t want to do as a test. I knew Jesus wouldn’t love me any less if I said no, but I didn’t want to disappoint him. I needed to prove my loyalty. Getting hitched was just another test to pass on my way to becoming a life-long servant of Christ. At that age, I could not see how heavily my choices had been influenced not by God, but by the religious systems I’d grown up in.
Like Chau, I wanted to be a missionary from the time I was a teenager. I too gorged myself on the stories of Bruce Olsen and David Livingstone. Inspired by their attempts to spread the Gospel around the world, I graduated from high school a year early and enrolled in a two-year missionary school in Florida. Jesus, I believed, would not return until every people group on earth had received the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus. Someone would have to go. If not me, then who? This is one of the exact questions Chau left behind in a letter to his friends and family.
As I prepared myself for a life of missions, the story of Nate Saint and Jim Elliot was never far from my consciousness. The two men had been killed in 1956 trying to convert an isolated tribe in Ecuador. By 1957, Elisabeth Elliot, Jim’s wife, memorialized her husband in the book, Through Gates of Splendor. When I read Elliot’s work as a teenager in the mid 90s, I internalized the message that to die for Jesus was the greatest honor one could have. While Chau did not reference Elliot anywhere in his writings, he seemed to internalized the same message.
Chau knew he’d likely be killed if he persisted to make contact with the Sentinelese. Reflecting on his initial attempt to reach the island, Chau questioned why a child would shoot at him and whether it would be wiser to leave and let someone else continue. Watching his final sunset, the young missionary confessed his sadness that it might be his last one. The thought of it made him cry — he didn’t want to die. Nevertheless, Chau felt he should go back.
Chau felt he could not refuse God. Admittedly afraid, he believed it was his calling to go ashore. As his handwriting became ever more frantic, Chau talked himself into facing his fears. Though he hoped to survive long enough to learn the language and share his life with the Sentinelese, his first goal was simply to reach land.
I felt the same way when I married J. All I wanted was to get down that aisle. I would figure the rest out later. With my wedding as a precedent, it is not a stretch to believe I would have repeated the same patterns in my life as a missionary, possibly making some of the same choices Chau did.
Thankfully, it never came to that. My missionary fervor fizzled out by the time I was 26 — Chau’s age. The failure of my marriage had derailed my efforts to become a full-time missionary. For several years, I gave short-term missions a go — spending two weeks to six months in various countries trying to evangelize those who did not yet know Jesus.
On one of those trips, the truth finally dawned on me. Though I’d given my life to the pursuit of becoming a missionary, I was still unprepared. I didn’t belong in the places I’d gone to serve. Though I didn’t yet understand the link between missions and colonialism, or that I’d bought into the white savior complex, I knew something was off.
Back home, I enrolled in an international studies program at the University of California. I stopped attending church. I was still a believer, but no longer insulated by a singular view of the world. That view placed American Christianity as the chief end of man, and me — a missionary — at the center of it. By the time I went back overseas as a relief worker, I had developed a healthier view of myself and others. My love for God, I had learned, didn’t need to be proven.
It’s a lesson I wish Chau had had time to discover, too. Influenced by the same teachings as I had been, Chau’s actions are understandable. The missions marketing system targets young people whose decision-making abilities are not fully developed. Capitalizing on the natural zeal of youth, the system plants irresistible ideas of self-sacrifice and grandeur, leveraging the name of God to do it. It’s a wonder we haven’t lost more youth the same way.
Chau’s death is heartbreaking. I mourn his loss. And while some are praying Chau’s death will increase the interest in missions, I hope for the opposite. May Chau’s death spark introspection on the ways we manipulate young people into missions, and may it prevent other tragic stories.