“God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps on the waves and rides upon the storm. His purposes will ripen fast unfolding every hour. The bud may have a bitter taste but sweet will be the flower. Blind unbelief is sure to err and search His ways in vain. God is his own interpreter, He will make it plain.” William Cowper

A total stranger suddenly blurted out, “Your father didn’t need to die.” The comment caught me totally by surprise. Why would a handsome young man with a loving wife, three adoring children and most of his life ahead of him, needlessly risk his life for just a handful of savages?

The thought flashed through my mind that dad and I could have been together at the huge international aviation event I was attending if he had not been killed.

Just then I caught sight, out of the corner of my eye, of one of my dearest friends in the world. He was attending the Oshkosh fly-in with me. With that one glimpse, reason came rushing back. If dad had not died, this dear old friend who my children call ‘grandfather’ would almost surely not have lived to be a Grandfather.

The stranger who had accosted me was telling me that the violent tribal people who had brutally speared my dad to death were a matriarchal society. Women should have been sent in to contact them. I interrupted him to introduce him to Mincaye who was now standing by us. “I would like to introduce you to my dear friend ‘grandfather’ Mincaye. He and several of his fellow Waodani warriors are the ones you were just mentioning who killed my father!”

I thought about mentioning that my dad’s sister Rachel Saint, documented in her journal that Mincaye had threatened to spear her to death as well. Aunt Rachel and Betty Elliot, whose husband Jim was killed with my dad, went in to live with Mincaye’s tribe just two and a half years after they speared dad, Jim, Roger, Pete and Ed to death.

The man looked sufficiently shocked. I decided to just ask him if he had anything he would like to ask ‘Grandfather’ Mincaye. He apparently did not. He disappeared into the crowd of people gathered around the plane where Mincaye and his fellow tribesman Tementa were demonstrating how they could use an airplane as a flying dental or medical clinic to meet serious physical needs of their tribe.

The Unfolding Story

Listening to NPR a few days ago I was surprised to hear that another young man was killed by a very small band of isolated people living on a small island off the coast of Thailand. India claims sovereignty over the island. They apparently, however, do not offer the islands small group of inhabitants even basic services. That Is considered a violation of their human rights by the United Nations, I believe. But that isn’t the point.

When the unfolding story identified John Allen Chau as a missionary, I was even more surprised that he wasn’t immediately denounced and excoriated as a misguided adventure seeker willing to risk infecting this small, isolated indigenous people group with diseases they had no natural immunological defenses against. Those criticisms caught up within hours.

What surprises me most about the killing of John Allen are the criticisms coming from people identifying themselves as Christians.

My mother made several comments while I was growing up about people being angry with my dad, Nate, getting himself killed by the “Auca Indians.”  Just before mom died I came under some fairly severe criticism for helping to make the movie, End of the Spear. It tells the now famous story that began with my dad and his four friends who were killed in 1956 when I was just a boy.

I asked mom, “Why would anyone have been upset with you widows when your husbands had just been brutally killed? They willingly risked their lives and refused to use their guns when they were attacked!”

1956 Motives Questioned

My mom explained to me that some Christians were angry because the five men hadn’t planned better.  Some actually suggested that they should have just dropped Bibles to the Waodani rather than risking their lives in a face to face contact.” They must have assumed that the Waodani, who had an unwritten language would miraculously be able to read English Bibles. Some people, like many now, questioned why missionaries don’t just leave happy, innocent people living in Eden-like societies alone.

Dabo, a Waodani warrior told two anthropologists the answer to that question. If the ‘cowodi,’ outsiders, had not told us about the better way to live, “There would have been none of us left,” Another anthropologist who studied the Waodani identified them as having a 60% homicide rate. They were a society of death.

My mother told me that the primary recurring criticism she and the other 4 widows received went something like this. “Now that you all have gone out and gotten yourselves killed, who will ever want to be a missionary.”  Surprisingly, thousands of people have told me personally that the story God wrote with my dad and his four friends lives has motivated them to dedicate their lives to service for others.

Learning More About Chau

Three days after the death of John Chau on a North Sentinel island was reported, a friend and fellow missionary kid stopped by for a visit. Paul had taken a course on Church Planting with John.

A mutual friend works at the headquarters of the missionary sending agency that John Chau worked with. I talked to her about John. John had also corresponded and talked to an engineer working with ITEC (Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center). He wanted to see if he might be able to use UAVs in his attempt to make friendly contact with the Sentinelese group that killed him.

It quickly became clear to me that John had felt compelled for years to contact the small isolated Sentinel Island group like my dad had about the Waodani. Dad and John Chau took what they understood to be God’s mandate seriously. To that end,  John studied linguistics, anthropology and emergency medicine. Knowing that what he was going to do could cost him his life, he stayed away from romantic entanglements. John explained what he felt God had called him to do to his parents. He apparently wanted them to know that it might cost him and them his life.

Legalities and Quarantine?

But what about the government prohibition against contacting this isolated people group? The government themselves appear to have attempted to make contact. In that attempt, it is reported that the people on the island shot arrows at the menacing helicopter. There is also a report that National Geographic attempted a contact.

For Christ-followers, should safety and governmental prohibitions be our primary concerns? What if men make laws that contradict Christ’s instructions? Peter, one of Christ’s disciples was arrested and told by the religious and political authorities, not to tell people about Jesus and his teachings. But Peter replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? (Bible, Acts of the Apostles 4:19 NLT)

In John Chau’s journals, I was told that he was concerned that his attempted contact should not risk infecting the island inhabitants with diseases that he might unknowingly carry with him. John’s quarantine plans or the legality of his plans for contacting this isolated group are not what motivated me to evaluate this young man’s actions which cost him, his family and friends his life. What motivates me to consider John Chau’s actions is whether his attempt to make contact was justified by his commitment to follow Christ and Biblical mandates.

Our Calling

Christ clearly told his disciples to take his offer of forgiveness to everyone everywhere, and to make disciples in all nations (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 6:15-16,  Luke 24:44-46, and John 20:21 NLT). We Christ-followers are told by Peter to live as free men but not to use our freedom as a pretext for evil (1 Peter 2:16).
Christian missionaries have caused harm to people they should have served.

Christian missionaries have lorded it over tribal peoples. We have at times unwittingly infused our culture into Christ’s Gospel.

We should repent our mistakes and determine not to repeat them. But do our mistakes release us from Christ’s command to make His gospel available to everyone everywhere?  The answer is NO!

Is there a price to pay? YES. I understand that cost personally.

William Cowper wrote words I cannot forget. “God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps on the waves and rides upon the storm. His purposes will ripen fast unfolding every hour. The bud may have a bitter taste but sweet will be the flower. Blind unbelief is sure to err and search His ways in vain. God is his own interpreter, He will make it plain.”

Before his death, my dad wrote in his journal that those of us who follow Christ must consider ourselves expendable. We must go. We don’t have to come back. Given the choice of doing life over, I would not wish my dad back. I believe we are best off to “ let God Write Our Story.”

Dad’s friend Jim perhaps said it best. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

18 Comments

  • Jess Smith says:

    Your fathers story, which I first heard in grade school, has motivated me to pursue missions and a life whole-heartedly dedicated to the Lord. Thank you for continuing to be a voice of truth regarding the reality and cost of the Great Commision. Jesus is so worthy!

  • Mary Jane Duncan says:

    Of course when I saw this on the news I thought right away of 1956! Amazon! Aucas! Nate, Jim, Ed, Pete, Roger! Hope to learn more about this brave young man👍

  • S says:

    The term ” savages” is very offending. Is that what American missionaries who came to the remote villages of Nagaland also thought?

    • Daniel says:

      Steve uses this term in the article referring to a statement made by someone else about the tribe his father was reaching. He was not using this term to personally describe them… In the 50’s, this tribe killed anyone who entered their territory and were known by the outside world by the name ‘Aucas’ or naked savages. It was indeed a derogatory term. The Waodani or Huaorani is the name that they go by, meaning ‘true people.’ Steve is considered family by this many in this tribe today, and I would encourage you to look into the book End of the Spear if you haven’t already to learn more about this story. https://www.itecusa.org/product/end-of-the-spear/

      Dan – From The ITEC Team

  • Seth A. says:

    I’m conflicted. On one hand, I agree that we have a call, as believers to take risks to share the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. On the other hand, there are details about his encounter with the Sentinelese that might have warranted wisdom. He made landfall on the island days before his death. The Sentinelese refused to even listen or talk to him, shooting arrows at him. He fled back to the fishing boat that ferried him there. In spite of that, he decided to go back and likely face his death. When Christ sends out the 70 to the towns in Judea, he instructs them to let their peace rest on those places where they are welcomed, and to take it with them where they are not. But clearly, in your father’s case, God used his sacrifice to open up doors to that people group. I wouldn’t question Christ’s work there. I also wouldn’t throw out the possibility that something spiritually could be happening on N. Sentenel Island right now as a result of John’s actions. But it’s also possible that wisdom may have guided John to a “wait” decision too. None of us will know John’s personal process of discerning God’s specific call on his life. Details of the story can point in either direction: i.e. his decision not to get romantically involved, the Sentenelese’s hostility to even have John on the island. It isn’t for me to judge… but I think we’ll have to wrestle with this tension for now.

  • Jessica Lee says:

    Thank you so much for this post and for your life of faith and devotion to the Lord.

  • Cameron Jenkins says:

    Insanity. I’m sorry that you didn’t learn much from your father’s untimely demise. There is very little benefit an island of <100 people could gain from a Christian missionary's actions and he should have strongly considered common sense before the words in his book. You can justify any mistake with "because God wills it and he forgives me" – but it's not a valid reasoning to reasonable people.

    • Daniel says:

      Hi Cameron,

      I would invite you to read the book Steve wrote called End of the Spear. We will send you a copy if you email us at [email protected]. Steve, who was 5 when his father was martyred, is now friends with the very men from the Waodani tribe who speared his dad. That man who killed his father, Mincaye, has gone on to speak with Steve in front of millions of people impacting many lives around the world. It’s a true and powerful testament of how God can and does use unlikely ‘little benefit’ peoples to have great impact. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Know that the ITEC team is praying for you.

      Dan – From the ITEC Team

  • Lisa Robertson says:

    Thank you, Steve, for this article. You wrote, “Surprisingly, thousands of people have told me personally that the story God wrote with my dad and his four friends lives has motivated them to dedicate their lives to service for others.” I’d like to add a bit there… I know that God has been using YOU, and the gracious love of your family toward those who killed your dad to demonstrate Christ’s forgiveness, to draw people to missions. As a personal example, your testimony and dedication to missions has led my 18 year old daughter to get her pilot’s license in order to serve remote areas and bring the love of Jesus. You have been motivating her in this since she was 6. I think the families’ loving response to the 5 men’s deaths draws even more to dedicate their lives to service for others, not just the tragedy itself. Thank you for serving.

  • Jim Bull says:

    I thoroughly agree with you, Steve – John Chau was following the will of the Lord! Thank you for sharing the incites from you and the others!

    Ever since I heard of John’s death, I wondered what we can do? The attempt you father had on contacting the Waodani tribe parallels John’s attempt. A small plane – or a UAV – could be used to lower supplies and retrieve what the people returned.

    I am willing myself to go and be used by the Lord – all though I am elderly (77), I had a stroke, and have little income, pray that I will receive from Him clear direction. And bless you and others in ITEC in all you do!

    In Jesus Name,

  • Kent Erickson says:

    HI Steve, I’ve been wanting and hoping to hear from you on the topic of John’s death. It astounds me, peoples words and opinions on issues they truly know not. Reminds me of the saying “rarely correct but never in doubt”. As a former missionary with YWAM and a current missionary’s heart asking God for my next move, the burden in my heart for the lost on the path to hell, I often am powerfully impacted by your words and actions in our mission today. Your story and your family’s story has had a very large impact in my life and my children’s lives which I may tell you about someday. Thank you for defending this young man’s obedience and sacrifice and clarifying it as well. We need to encourage each on especially in the seemingly aloneness often times in this mission we’re on…and your words do that. Thank you Steve, God bless you sir.

  • Barbara Byron says:

    This commentary on the martyrdom of John Chau was an inspiration to me. At the present time, the Chinese Christ-followers are undergoing severe persecution. The missionaries are also being persecuted. Some are being detained, some arrested, some sent home, and some, no one knows where they are. We need to be in prayer for these courageous people. We have a Higher Authority to follow than earthly governments, and if Christ should honor us with the privilege of laying down our lives for His sake and that of the gospel, why should we be afraid to do it? Ham Hamilton, missionary to the Chinese, was told he would be shot if he didn’t deny his Lord…and he told them he wasn’t afraid. Out of that experience, which he survived, he wrote a poem entitled, Afraid of What?” John Chau, the missionaries to the Waodani, and every other person who was privileged to pour out their blood for Christ should be honored, not criticized. After all, it is what the Lord Jesus Christ says about it that is our guideline.

  • John Donahue says:

    It will never cease to amaze me how quick people can be to comment and criticize things they have no intimate knowledge or awareness of.

    When I was in Bible college I portrayed your father in a stage play about him and his four colleagues’ successful missionary endeavor to reach the Waodani people. I researched and studied every detail I could get my hands on to try and get ahold of the passion they had for reaching a people group that had never before been exposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I read many articles, books, every personal journal entry your father and his missionary companions wrote that I could get my hands on. It was one of the single most transforming experiences of my life.

    I have been involved in short term missionary efforts since I was a young teenager. It has been a passion of mine that I don’t remember not having. Even though my calling in life and ministry has been in other areas missions remains something I am passionate about. Doing everything I could to capture the heart and thinking of your father has caused me to commit myself to everything I do for the cause of growing the kingdom of God with the same reckless abandon your father and his colleagues entered the jungle with. They had a plan and they cautiously approached the people they were attempting to share the good news of the Gospel with, but they did not withdraw from or withhold from pursuing their purpose, even when the danger was at its greatest. They may have lost their lives that day, but they could not have communicated the truth of the Gospel in any more effective way. The Son of God demonstrated his love for us by dying to pay for our sins when we were his enemies. There can be no greater demonstration of love than that. The value of a single man’s soul far outweighs the risks, dangers, or costs.

    One of the greatest days of my life was seeing you and Mincaye 17 years ago in San Jose, California. Seeing the two of you together as father and son was a brilliant demonstration of the power of the Gospel to redeem not only the soul of man but even the darkest of situations as well. It was so inspiring to hear Mincaye tell the rest of the story that hasn’t been published in his own words. To see that not only you have followed in your father’s footsteps in missions, but that the Waodoni people have become missionaries to those who are like they once were, isolated and unreached with the Gospel, ingrained in me that there is no cost to great to pay for incalculable rewards, even if you never live to see them with your own eyes.

  • Gilbert Gleason says:

    Steve, I remember fondly you and Ginny being with us in the Elliot home in Portland in 2006. Our five men in Ecuador made a series of friendly contacts over several months. They felt they had an open door to visit. And I believe they did had it not been for some miscommunication between the tribal members. It appears to me that John Chau went in with a blind faith that he would be accepted. I struggle with that. I applaud his willingness to “give what he cannot keep” but without the ground being tilled, it looked more like a suicide mission

  • Paul Clark says:

    Great Article, Thanks Steve. I was talking with someone about John Chau. I said that he didn’t die in vain. We don’t know what God is going to do through his life. But before John’s going there, not very many of us knew about this island or the Sentinel tribe there. But now how many Christians are praying for these people? If there is an army of Christians raised up to pray for these people… That is not a wasted life.

  • Julian says:

    Amen!

  • Steve Demme says:

    Thank you brother. Well said and well lived.