‘Explorer at heart’: Missionary killed near India loved roaming Pacific Northwest
John Allen Chau spent summers alone in a California cabin as a wilderness emergency responder, led backpacking expeditions in the Northwest’s Cascade Mountains, almost lost his leg to a rattlesnake bite, and coached soccer for poor children in Iraq and South Africa.
But kayaking to a remote Indian island, home to a tribe known for attacking outsiders with bows and arrows, proved an adventure too far for the avid outdoorsman and Christian missionary. Chau was killed last week on North Sentinel Island, in the Andaman Islands, situated between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
Visits to the island are heavily restricted, which Chau knew, authorities said. Police arrested seven fishermen accused of helping him reach it, and
Chau’s family pleaded for their release, saying he acted “on his own free will.”
Chau, 26, was from southwestern Washington, where he attended Vancouver Christian High School. He went on to graduate from Oral Roberts University, a Christian college in Oklahoma, in 2014, with a degree in health and exercise science. While there, he worked with the university’s missions and outreach department.
Chau also worked with a nonprofit organization, More Than a Game, a soccer program for poor children, including refugees. Chau traveled to the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq in 2014 to work with Syrian and Iraqi refugee youths, according to an employee of the organization, and he worked with Burmese refugee children in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for several years.
On Father’s Day last year, Chau noted on Instagram that his father came to the U.S. as a refugee during China’s Cultural Revolution. He also documented his extensive travels, posting photos of climbing Cascade peaks, scuba diving on previous trips to the Andaman Islands and fishing in Southern California.
One of Chau’s friends, Casey Prince, 39, of Cape Town, South Africa, met the adventurer five years ago, when Chau traveled with members of the Oral Roberts soccer team to volunteer at a soccer development and social leadership program that Prince founded, Ubuntu Football Academy.
Since then, Chau had been back to visit Prince and his family or tutor and coach boys in the program about four times. Most recently, he was there from mid-september to mid-october, Prince said.
Prince described Chau as easy to like, kind, joyful and driven by twin passions: a love of the outdoors and fervent Christianity.
“He was an explorer at heart,” Prince said. “He loved creation and being out in it, I think having probably found and connected with God that way, and deeply so.”
Police in India say Chau believed God was helping him dodge the authorities.
“God sheltered me and camouflaged me against the coast guard and the navy,” Chau wrote before he was killed last week.
Indian ships monitor the waters around the island, trying to ensure outsiders do not go near the Sentinelese, who have repeatedly made clear they want to be left alone.
When a young boy tried to hit him with an arrow on his first day on the island, Chau swam back to the fishing boat he had arranged to wait for him offshore. The arrow, he wrote, hit a Bible he was carrying.
“Why did a little kid have to shoot me today?” he wrote in his notes, which he left with the fishermen before swimming back the next morning. “His high-pitched voice still lingers in my head.”
Police say Chau knew that the Sentinelese resisted all contact by outsiders, firing arrows and spears at passing helicopters and killing fishermen who drift onto their shore. His notes, which were reported Thursday in Indian newspapers and confirmed by police, make clear he knew he might be killed.
“I DON’T WANT TO DIE,” wrote Chau. “Would it be wiser to leave and let someone else to continue. No I don’t think so.”
Alex Burgdorfer, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, said he met Chau last year when the two went through a recertification course for wilderness first responders. The two hit it off because of their mutual interest in travel and hiking and had recently been trying to get together for a hiking trip in the Northwest.
“He was an inspiration for me,” he said. “His energy was pure. He gave you his full attention and his full thoughts.”
John Allen Chau