John Chau first heard of North Sentinel Island about 10 years ago, when the Washington state native made it his calling to evangelize the residents of the remote island on the other side of the world. But evangelicals in mainland India have known about the indigenous tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands—territories under their country’s federal rule—for decades.
Two Indian missiologists shared their perspectives with CT on the young American’s failed attempt to evangelize the Sentinelese and how the story of his death may impact future efforts to reach tribal groups in the islands.
Even in India, Chau Raised Awareness of the Sentinelese
Atul Y. Aghamkar
India is a complex land with the most sophisticated, well-educated, urban, globalized, wealthy elites on the one hand, and—as recent news has reminded us—some of the most isolated people living in primitive conditions on the other.
The Anthropological Survey of India has identified at least 4,635 distinct people groups, including a large tribal population of about 10 million people (7–8% of the country), often referred to as adivasis, meaning “original inhabitants,” or “scheduled tribes” in government records.
The Andaman Islands are home to four “Negrito” tribes—the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, and Sentinelese—believed to have arrived from Africa some 60,000 years ago. The neighboring Nicobar Islands are home to two “Mongoloid” tribes—the Shompen and Nicobarese—believed to have come from the Malay-Burma coast 1,000 years ago. The number of original inhabitants of these islands is slowly diminishing, and some are even on the verge of extinction.
The Sentinelese—the tribe missionary John Chau famously tried to reach—is the most inaccessible. Their original name and language is unknown; the Sentinelese are called that because the British dubbed their home the North Sentinel Island.
Most Christians in the Andamans—both Protestants and Catholics—are not native inhabitants, but believers who migrated there from the mainland Indian states of Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. Though some among the natives on major islands have responded to the gospel, there has not been much initiative toward reaching the aboriginal people of other small islands. Indigenous missions including Indian Evangelical Mission, Christian and Missionary Alliance of India, and others have attempted, but none of them have any reported ministry among the aboriginal tribes of the Andamans.
Andaman Tribes: Neglected by Indian Missions?
Evangelizing the huge unreached and diverse population in India is so overwhelming that reaching beyond the mainland is considered impractical. In fact, the India Missions Association claims that more than 253 indigenous missionary societies oversee 40,000 cross-cultural missionaries in the country, mostly working among the Dalits and scheduled caste population in the mainland of India as well as the tribal population there. With limited personnel, resources, and infrastructure, it is not surprising that they are confined to areas where they can invest their resources and personnel in a most productive manner.
Further, Indian missions literature seldom includes any information about the Andaman Islands. There is apparently a lack of awareness among mission leaders on these aboriginals, and hence very little effort, if any, is made to reach out to them. Moreover, strong restrictions from the Indian government have hindered Indian missionaries from reaching these tribes. Visits to the Sentinel Island, in particular, are illegal without prior permissions. No commercial or private ferry boat services are available, so one has to hire private boats illegally to travel within view of the coast.
The language of the Sentinelese is not known, and so this is a major barrier in communicating with them. Since the community is unreachable both by the government officials as well as social scientists, Christian missionaries also find it difficult to establish any contact with them.
Indian Reactions to Chau’s Death
Media reports of Chau’s dangerous trip and death at the hands of the Sentinelese have evoked mixed responses in India. Many Indian TV channels initially showed him as an American tourist who foolishly dared to enter the Sentinelese territory. Others argued he violated the Indian tourist visa provisions. Still some have marveled at the courage of the young American to travel this far to connect with this remote tribal group with the desire to reach them with the gospel.
However, when more information on Chau’s purpose became known, some sections of the media reacted by coloring this as an American evangelical’s attempt to interfere in the religious affairs of India as well as its people and culture. Still others continued to brand this as a “foolish” act on the part of the overenthusiastic young American.
After Chau’s attempt to reach the Sentinelese, some mission leaders and organizations in India have now became more aware of the need to identify unreached tribal populations beyond mainland India. Others have sensed the need for partnership and proper networking with any group undertaking such an adventure in reaching the tribal population.
Further, Chau’s effort has created some interest among missions groups to do something for these unreached people who are drastically neglected by Christian missions in India. For some, the American missionary’s daring venture has given boost to their missionary instinct for reaching such unreached people.
On the other hand, publicity around Chau’s death has also alerted hardline Hindutva groups, as they smell “an evangelical American conspiracy” to disturb Indian culture. Some are now asking that more stringent restrictions be put on any Christian activities in the Andaman Islands.
Obviously, the government would now be more vigilant and restrictive against any “Christian” initiative to reach the aboriginal tribal population of the Andaman Islands. If that happens—and it is most likely to happen—any attempt to reach the Sentinelese or other unreached people groups would become extremely difficult in years to come.
Still, some of India’s missions leaders are optimistic by saying the Lord of the harvest is sovereign and will help us to reach every people group for Christ in India—including the most unreached Sentinelese.
Atul Y. Aghamkar is a former professor of missiology in India and now serves as director of the National Centre for Urban Transformation in Bangalore.
The Case for an Indigenous Missionary: Why John and Not Rajesh?
John Chau showed genuine passion for people who others had left to live in their undesirable destiny. His desire to share the love of Jesus with the Sentinelese is commendable.
But will his story affect the way we in India do our mission towards the unreached? It should not, though it challenges our perceptions—raising questions around why we set out to share the gospel with isolated tribes and who is best to do it.
The Sentinelese Deserve to Hear the Gospel
If you travel to the northeast Indian state of Nagaland, particularly to the Mon district, you will see old men and women from the Konyak tribe. They walk around the market with tattoos on their faces and bodies, colored beads around their necks, and impressive animal tusks in their ears.
The last of the tattooed headhunters, the Konyaks now live peacefully. They once believed that power lies in the human skull, taking the heads of their enemies. That changed around 1970 as they converted to Christianity.
Key to their transformation was when an “outsider” visited them and told them the way of peace. What would a Konyak think as she or he hears of the Sentinelese killing of John Chau? Would she or he say these Sentinelese should remain a “museum display” of a stone-age tribe, or instead are their lives worthy to hear the gospel?
Why would we let them live to an unfavorable destiny? Why should we deny the gospel to the Sentinelese?
The Sentinelese are strong and have rebuffed outsiders for centuries. Their aggression may stem from their fear of being taken away from their island. Although they look tough, they are vulnerable. Indian anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay, who had visited North Sentinel Island in 1991, wrote in response to Chau’s death:
Considering their dwindling population and vulnerability, it was decided that the Indian government would not interfere in their lives. These tribes will anyway die out because of their small numbers as well as their limited gene pool. But if we interfere, they will die out sooner.
So why bother?
Chau believed the Sentinelese were worthy of hearing the gospel, writing, “I think it is worth it to declare Jesus to this people. Please don’t get angry at them or God if I get killed.” His passion was built on a higher calling to go “to the ends of the earth” and “to every tribe” with the gospel.
He has been accused of going to North Sentinel Island illegally and unethically bribing fishermen to assist him. But Chau was not the first one to do so, nor were his strategies unusual. Many foreigners have tried to approach the Sentinelese—some from nearby Myanmar and Indonesia—and they also asked local fishermen to take them.
Giving gifts to the Sentinelese has also been common practice. Chattopadhyay, from the Anthropological Survey of India, is considered to have made the first-ever friendly contact with the tribe. Her team also offered coconuts floated on the water to the island. The tribe, she said, shouted, “Nariyali jaba jaba,” or “more and more coconuts” in Onge dialect in response. They eventually exchanged fruit in person, after a long enough wait that the Sentinelese let their guard down.
Since the Sentinelese are incredibly protective of their women, Chattopadhyay, coming in as a female member of the survey team, helped them feel that these visitors meant no harm. Chattopadhyay’s success in getting the Sentinelese to put their arrows down holds lessons for anyone attempting to visit remote and hostile tribes.
Gift-giving and patience are essential to trust-building. A group effort, including female missionaries, would have made a difference for Chau, as would a longer timeline for contact. After all, it took over 80 years after Christianity spread to Nagaland for missionaries to reach the Konyaks with the gospel.
The Global South Has Resources for Missions
Milale milale is the term for friend used by the tribes in the Andaman Islands, particularly the Jarawas and the Onge. Chau wanted to make friendly contact with the Sentinelese, but instead of becoming a friend, his story will go down in the file as another wasted attempt.
The immediate question for Indian missionaries upon hearing of the death of an American in the Andamans is: Why didn’t Chau or the All Nations mission agency partner with a local agency?
Local partners would know the cultural dynamics of reaching these unreached tribes in the island territories. The gospel has already reached the Nicobarese; but the Jarawas, Ongis, Shompen, and Sentinelese are still considered as most unreached.
Would it not have been wiser for a Western mission agency to work with the Nicobarese Christians, the nearest culturally similar group, for a mission to the Sentinelese? Sometimes a “we can do it alone in our way” mindset endangers our missional purpose.
The Sentinelese see no difference between a tourist, journalist, researcher, police officer, or missionary approaching them. But we as Christians know there are differences between cross-cultural and indigenous missionaries.
Chau was a cross-cultural missionary with a passion for reaching one of the most unreached groups in the world, while “Rajesh” is a typical indigenous missionary working in the rural belt of India. Unlike Chau in the US, Rajesh encounters similar threats daily as he shares the gospel to animists like the Sentinelese. Sentinelese pray to the sky, water, and land. They make wooden replicas of those who die and leave out food and water for them.
Many indigenous missionaries regularly face violence or even death as they share the gospel. These stories aren’t reported and may never make headlines as missionary heroes. However, they continue to pursue their passion from a place of close cultural proximity. As a result, the gospel is spread at a faster pace.
Should not the church or missions agencies in India be prepared to reach out to people groups like the Sentinelese? When will it dawn on western Christianity that Global South has the human resources to pick up such challenges as the Sentinelese?
The gospel needs to reach every corner of the world, and missionary lives are precious, whether indigenous or cross-cultural.
Finny Philip is a member of the international Lausanne Movement Board, principal of Filadelfia Bible College in North India, mission director for Filadelfia Fellowship Church of India, and one of the theological editors for South Asia Bible Commentary.