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The Story Behind John Allen Chau, An American Missionary Who Was Killed While Working


When an American missionary was killed on a remote Indian Island last year, people around the world treated it as a punchline. John Allen Chau had been trying to reach members of an isolated and protected tribe to convert them to Christianity. The people of North Sentinel Island had fired arrows at him in warning, and on his third attempt to visit the island, they killed him. In the latest issue of Outside magazine, Alex Perry investigates what led Chau on this mission, and he joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALEX PERRY: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You say there were members of Chau's circle, family and friends of his, who have kept quiet since his death in November. And they only talked to you because you'd had a similar obsession with these islands when you were younger. But you didn't approach the island as a missionary. Tell us about your experience.

PERRY: No, I was a journalist, a foreign correspondent based in India. And it was one of the first stories I heard when I got to India. This anthropologist I met, Vishvajet Pandya, told me about essentially a Neolithic tribe - or, in fact, several tribes living on these islands. And it was just such a sort of fantastical idea. I became quite obsessed by getting out there and particularly when I heard that one of the tribesmen had spent six months in a hospital and had learned Hindi, so there was a way to communicate.

And I just became obsessed with the idea of - in those days, actually, the idea - an interview with a Stone Age cave man. You know, I since became disabused of how inaccurate that was. But that's what was in my mind. That's what I was pursuing for years, actually.

SHAPIRO: And how much do you think your youthful obsession, which did not have anything to do with religion, overlapped with the obsession of John Allen Chau?

PERRY: We were both going after a kind of Everest. It's something big and difficult, dangerous for sure. The tribes were known to shoot at anyone who came into their area. On top of that, you've got to evade the Indian authorities who put them under protection. Plus, China has claimed that area, so there's a high military presence there. So the whole thing, if you're young and adventurous, it's kind of fantastic.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about John Allen Chau specifically and his motivations and what drove him and what surprised you about where he came from.

PERRY: There's a number of different things. John was a huge outdoorsman, very capable. And he was particularly a kind of solo adventurer, did a lot of solo hikes for days at a time. And that actually turns out to be - in the missionary world, there's a kind of extreme sports end of the missionary world. It's all bro and dude and legit and hey and high-fives and scaling down cliffs to meet an uncontacted tribe. Very often, I've got to say, that story - the story that they're all trying to tell - is of the solo adventurer going into the jungle and finding the lost tribe.


PERRY: And, you know, not infrequently, they don't come back. But the really arresting discovery that I made was that his father, who was this Chinese American success story, emigrated in the early '80s, learned English, became a doctor, put three kids through college. In 2009, he was busted by two undercover DEA agents essentially for selling prescription drugs without due care - opioids.

And John was actually just at that pivotal moment when he was deciding what he was going to do with his life. And his father - as his father describes, he took a sharp left turn into two things - climbing lots of mountains by himself and radical Christianity.

SHAPIRO: What do you say to observers, listeners, people who read this news story and say, this man got what he deserved? He was told not to go to the island. They fired warning shots. What did he expect?

PERRY: To some extent, what he got was predictable. This people has a history going back tens of thousands of years of violently repelling anyone who steps on their island. If you extend that and you say that he deserved to die, I think you are lacking in a certain human empathy. The only person hurt in this whole adventure was John Chau, and he died.

You may think he was misguided. The story I think manages to nuance that in that there are some benefits, actually, it turns out, of missionary work around the world. And it's - you know, John was not a sort of imperialist colonialist. But the whole lesson of the history of the Andaman Islands and John Chau's story is a lesson about human empathy. And I would say people who have that reaction could do with a dose of it.

SHAPIRO: Alex Perry's story in Outside magazine is called "The Last Days Of John Allen Chau." Thanks for speaking with us.

PERRY: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "AVRIL 14TH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.