The Current

A martyr, or misguided? Death of missionary sparks debate over evangelical work

A 26-year-old Christian missionary was killed last month when he snuck onto a remote island in the Indian Ocean. John Allen Chau hoped to preach to an uncontacted tribe, but he was killed. His death has sparked a debate: was he a martyr, or misguided?

Conversation around danger of youth doing missionary work often 'silenced,' former worker says

American John Allen Chau, right, was killed by a tribe on the remote Indian island of North Sentinel last month. (John Chau/Instagram)
Listen19:04

Read Story Transcript

The recent death of a U.S. Christian missionary in the Bay of Bengal is a chance to discuss the training and work of evangelical groups in the wider world, according to a man who was once a missionary himself.

"They train utter, ultimate dependence on this Father God, and that's not inherently bad," said Corey Pigg. He grew up in Missouri but worked as a youth missionary for seven years in his early 20s, including several trips to rural China.

"But where it goes sideways is when you're depending on Father God to take you to dangerous countries, to impose on other people's property, to give them something that you think that they have no access to," he told The Current's guest host Michelle Shephard.

Corey Pigg, centre, spent seven years working as a missionary in rural China. (Submitted by Corey Pigg)

Pigg, now 30, left religious work and moved back to the U.S., where he hosts a podcast called Failed Missionary.

He said he came to believe the message he was trying to spread was not an "ancient one," but a "recent message of the American gospel."

Young missionaries often unaware of danger

John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old Christian missionary, was killed last month after he paid local fishermen to smuggle him to North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean. 

Notes that the Alabama man left behind revealed he wanted to bring Christianity to the unconverted tribe there, but they apparently shot him with arrows and buried his body on the beach. 

The Sentinelese people live on the small forested island and are known to resist all contact with outsiders, often attacking anyone who comes near. Visits to the island are heavily restricted by the Indian government and authorities have not been able to recover Chau's body.

North Sentinel Island, in India's southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands, is populated by a tribe known to be hostile to outsiders. (Gautam Singh/Associated Press)

Pigg said while Chau's death is "very unfortunate," the conversation around young people doing missionary work is often "silenced."

"When I look back and think about when I was 21, I had no idea what I was doing then," he told Shephard.

"I had no idea about the dangerous places I was … allowing myself to go, or the things that I was allowing myself to do."

He said his family, who are not religious, tried to talk him out of going overseas, but he didn't listen.

"When I was at that age I wanted to do things that I was programmed to think were noble," Pigg said.

Chau 'knew that he could be killed'

There have been two types of reactions to Chau's death within the Christian community, said Mat Staver, who met the young man in 2015 and was stunned by his death.

Chau, right, is shown with Casey Prince, the founder of Ubuntu Football Academy, in Cape Town, South Africa, just days before Chau was killed. (Sarah Prince/Associated Press)

"The majority of the people in the Christian community believe he is a martyr," said Staver, a lawyer and the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, an international non-profit dedicated to advancing religious freedom.

"There are some people in the Christian community though, that raise questions about whether or not he was prepared enough, should he have gone with additional people," he told Shephard.

Staver explained those people don't know all the facts, and that Chau has been preparing for this mission for 10 years.

"No one was putting him in danger, this was John Chau, he was an adult," Staver said, pointing out that Chau knew he could be killed.

"In fact he even told his parents, if I die and if they kill me, don't be mad at God and don't be mad at them," he said.

"Just live your life and your relationship with Jesus Christ."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin and Ines Colabrese. With files from The Associated Press.

Corrections

  • This story was updated to clarify the length of time that Corey Pigg spent doing missionary work in China.
    Dec 07, 2018 2:11 PM ET

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.