‘The Goal Is to Change Hearts, Not to Change Cultures’: Missionaries on the Death of John Allen Chau

The death of an American missionary this month has led to an internal reckoning among many of his fellow missionaries.

After the missionary, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old Seattle man, was killed by members of a hunter-gatherer tribe on North Sentinel Island when he tried to visit them illegally, we asked missionaries to tell us how they viewed Mr. Chau’s actions and how they were reacting to his death. We heard from more than 300 missionaries, primarily from the United States and Canada, who have worked around the globe.

Many said they were resolute in their evangelical convictions, but others said Mr. Chau’s death caused them to re-examine what it means to be a missionary. And while some sympathized with Mr. Chau’s drive to travel to the island and minister to its inhabitants, others said they were disturbed by what they saw as recklessness.

Here is an edited and condensed selection of their responses.

How has the killing of John Allen Chau made you think differently about missionary work?

‘Missions need to be reformed’

I have a deep commitment to addressing the history of colonization attached to missions and the damage we have done as a result.

The “lone ranger” hero missionary story is VERY popular among Christians, while being very unhelpful as an example. This furthers my resolve that missions need to be reformed.

— Jamie Arpin-Ricci, 41, Winnipeg, Canada. Served 25 years as a missionary, primarily in Canadian cities.

‘The death of John encourages me to think more about eternity’

The death of John encourages me to think more about eternity, the call of God on my life and how far I am willing to go to share the love of God.

— Reynold Mainse, 57, Gulu, Uganda. A Canadian, he has served for four years as a missionary in Uganda with his American wife.

‘I’ve thought a lot about whether I did good or evil'

I worked as an English teacher and an “undercover” missionary in a country where proselytizing was forbidden. Over the last 15 years, I’ve thought a lot about whether I did good or evil in sharing the Gospel with those women.

The “missionary myth” I grew up with originally developed alongside the frontier myth in America — in both, a rugged individual sets off to conquer a new world. In both, you can find white supremacy and western cultural imperialism. All of this leads to the kind of endeavor undertaken by John Allen Chau — one right in line with the way that missionary work has often been mythologized in the white American church.

— Amy Peterson, 37, Upland, Ind. Served as a missionary to women in Southeast Asia for two years in the early 2000s.

‘The goal is to change hearts, not to change cultures’

The killing has made me really think about and define my opinions on being a missionary. Why I do it, how I do it, how to do it right.

The goal is to change hearts, not to change cultures.

— Grace Laurel Rogers, 22, Charleston, S.C. Served on mission trips to Romania and East Asia.

‘If someone is truly called by God to do something, they must do it’

I believe if someone is truly called by God to do something, they must do it. Jesus broke with the traditions and taboos of His day to touch lepers. The world is not going to always look out for my safety; much of that responsibility is to me, and with my faith, I must go and do what I’m called to do.

— Mike Wilson, 46, Leogone, Haiti. Served several short-term mission trips to Haiti since 2003; has lived there with his family full time since 2014.

‘I was NOT there to save souls or convert people'

As someone serving a progressive mainline Protestant denomination, I went through extensive training on cultural competency, postcolonial theory and faith-rooted organizing. I was NOT there to "save souls" or to convert people, but was instead sent to live in solidarity with marginalized communities while working for holistic, systemic reform.

I think Chau’s decision was uninformed, arrogant and self-serving. He has reinforced the stereotype of all missionaries as brash young colonizers trying to tame “primitive” tribes.

— Andrew Millman, 30, Colorado Springs, Colo. Served from 2013-15 as a Global Mission Fellow with the United Methodist Church in Moscow, working with the West African diaspora there.

‘This situation has begun to make me analyze my own priorities’

If anything, I think this situation has begun to make me analyze my own priorities and determine if I too am willing to risk everything to reach those who don’t yet know God.

— Harmonie Chapman, 22, Mitchelton, Australia. Has served as a missionary with Youth With a Mission, based in Brisbane, Australia, since 2017.

‘Let justice be left in the hands of an Almighty God'

Being a missionary is hard, but you count the cost before you go. Even into death, you have to be willing to share the hope that is everything to you to the world. The thought of getting thrown into a Nepali jail cell did not scare me nearly as much as the thought of all of the people in that country dying without hearing about Jesus. That is why we do what we do.

This is a tough puzzle. At the end of the day, the killing of another human being is wrong.

But to punish them by, practically speaking, foreign laws, would be wrong in my opinion. Let justice be left in the hands of an Almighty God here, for it seems to me that this case is out of the hands of the Indian government.

— Blake Dahlin, 21, Calimesa, Calif. Served a nine-month mission, beginning in 2017, in Swaziland, Lesotho, India, Nepal, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

What do you think of Mr. Chau’s decision to venture into an isolated and forbidden society that is vulnerable to crowd diseases?

‘Why did he need to go to the one place in the world where he wasn’t allowed?’

There are lots of other people in the world who need to hear about Jesus Christ. Why did he need to go to the one place in the world where he wasn’t allowed to go?

— Spencer Yamada, 28, Provo, Utah. Served a two-year mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in rural Washington State and Oregon.

‘The threat of disease was nothing compared to the reality of eternal perdition’

From where I stand now, it seems irresponsibly foolish. But from his point of view — a point of view I used to hold — the threat of disease was nothing compared to the reality of eternal perdition.

My goal was to share the Gospel with Muslims, and to eventually plant churches of Muslim-background believers. I believed that anyone who had not received Jesus Christ as their savior was damned, and going to an “unreached” place like Sindh was simply the most logical and faithful thing I could do.

— Matthew Cook, 36, Toronto. Served from 2005-09 as an evangelical missionary in Sindh, Pakistan.

‘I do think sharing the Gospel is worth the risk of the potential sharing of sickness’

It is a genuine concern to be aware of the potential of disease spreading, but I do think sharing the Gospel is worth the risk of the potential sharing of sickness as well.

— Michael Meyerdirk, 25, Bratislava, Slovakia. Lives in Slovakia and serves with a Christian nonprofit organization.

‘I wish he had consulted doctors'

I don't know of many other ways that he could have prepared for where he went, but there's always some risk whenever a new area is evangelized. Someone has to be the first one through the door, and I believe John Chau thought it was his duty to be that person.

I wish he had consulted doctors that are specialized in that area to understand the risks first, and if it posed a substantial danger, find other ways to communicate the Gospel to them, such as books, artwork or even a Bible that was translated into their language.

— Brady Cook, 32, Greenville, Tex. Spent seven weeks on a mission to Zimbabwe in 2007.

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Lela Moore is an audience writer for the Reader Center. She covers reader reaction to breaking news and popular articles on topics ranging from politics to business to sports. She also moderates the New York Times Reader Center Group on Facebook. @runlelarun Facebook

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