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Figuring out why a Washington missionary went to dangerous tribal island

John Allen Chau, right, stands for a photograph with a friend in Cape Town, South Africa, in October 2018, days before he left for a remote Indian island of North Sentinel Island, where he was killed. (AP Photo/Sarah Prince)

Why did a Vancouver, Washington native try and make missionary contact with a notoriously violent island tribe? A former missionary and current KIRO Radio podcast producer lent some insight.

John Allen Chau was convinced that he could could convert a notoriously hostile island tribe off the coast of India to Christianity. Tragically, he ended up killed for his efforts, and many have wondered what he was thinking.

“Jesus says go into the world and preach the gospel to all creation. That’s called ‘the Great Commission,'” KIRO Radio’s Aaron Mason told the Ron and Don Show.

Mason worked as a Christian missionary for four years. His missionary days are long behind him, but he recalls the motivations behind the calling in detail.

“People that take the missionary thing seriously, they consider that to be their prime directive in life,” Mason said. “To go out and to reach people who haven’t had a chance to hear the gospel, because if they don’t, those people are doomed to hell.”

That brings everything back to the simple question of why Chau thought that mission was worth chancing death for.

What John was doing was basically living his call,” Mason said.

“In the missionary’s mind, there is nothing more compassionate than salvation. Otherwise, when they die, they go to hell,” he added.

Chau attempted to make contact with the Sentinelese people, who the Indian government ceased contact with in 1996, enacting a naval buffer zone. In 2006, a pair of fishermen were killed by the tribe after inadvertently drifting to the shore of the island. They have even been known to fire arrows and throw spears at passing helicopters.

Despite the tribe’s violent history, Chau remained unfazed, insisting in a letter to law enforcement officials that he had God’s protection.

“God sheltered me and camouflaged me against the coast guard and the navy,” he wrote.

Chau hired a fishing boat at the neighboring island of Point Blair, and left under the cover of night to avoid attention from local authorities. When first approaching the island, a young boy fired an arrow at him, hitting the Bible Chau was carrying with him at the time.

It’s unclear what exactly happened when he next made landfall at the island, but it is known that he did not survive the encounter. Indian authorities have yet to recover his body, and anthropologists believe it may be impossible to do so given the vulnerability of the Sentinelese to common diseases, as well as their hostility to outsiders.

“I think it’s real easy to look at him and say he’s stupid,” said KIRO Radio’s Don O’Neil. “He embraced his calling — I have sympathy for him.”

RELATED: Washington state missionary killed by island natives

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