John Middleton Ramsey, 22, remembers his friend, John Chau, 26, telling him about his plan to travel to the Andaman Islands in India to try and teach the remote Sentinelese tribe about Jesus Christ two years ago.
Last week, Chau arrived on North Sentinel Island. Tribe members, who remain completely disconnected from the outside world, then shot him with arrows and killed him.
Ramsey told BuzzFeed News he was very sad to hear of Chau’s death, but added: “It’s not like I was like completely surprised. I had known about his plans and I knew about the dangers.”
Chau spoke with Ramsey about his plans while visiting Ramsey’s house in Washington state, shortly after Chau returned from a “scouting” trip to the Andaman Islands to make contacts with local Christians two years ago. Chau’s Instagram shows photos of his trip in September 2016.
He told him about his passion for the people of the Andaman and the Sentinelese specifically, Ramsey told BuzzFeed News.
“I don’t know what exactly prompted him to be interested in them rather than some other group, but I know a big reason was that they are some of the most isolated people and he had a passion for reaching them with Christ, for they had never even heard about him,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey supported the idea. “I encouraged him and said if that’s what God is calling him to do, then I was very much behind it.”
Chau had previously gone on a missionary trip to Kurdistan a few years ago.
Chau told Ramsey what he knew about the Sentinelese, whom he’d been researching. Chau knew they were isolated, and that previous attempts at contact over the years had resulted in them attacking whoever approached with spears and bows and arrows. He also knew it was illegal to go there.
“He was very well aware of the dangers and the fact that it is illegal,” said Ramsey.
In journal pages that Chau’s mother shared with the Washington Post, Chau wrote that he was “scared.”
“Watching the sunset and it’s beautiful — crying a bit,” he wrote the night before he was killed. “Wondering if it will be the last sunset I see.” But Chau also believed that “God Himself” was helping him in his mission and “ was hiding us from the Coast Guard and many patrols,” he wrote.
Chau had a plan to try and win the Sentinelese tribe’s trust, Ramsey said. He would try to go alone and be unthreatening. He would befriend them by giving them gifts. He would also use body language, since they do not speak the same language. It’s unknown what language the Sentinelese speak.
According to the Post, a teenager from the Sentinelese tribe had shot an arrow at Chau, piercing his waterproof Bible, during his initial trip to the remote island.
“He wanted to first get to know them a little bit; learn the language. Then eventually share the gospel to them, and translate the Bible into that language,” said Ramsey.
Chau shared his idea with others, Ramsey said, noting that a “fair amount” of people knew and it wasn’t just limited to his close friends. Chau had an email list that he would regularly send updates to when he was traveling, including his plan to visit the Sentinelese, Ramsey said.
“Instead of saying ‘God,’ he would say ‘dad,’ so there wouldn’t be any governmental interception,” Ramsey said. “He knew what he was doing wasn’t exactly legal.”
“What I knew about these people was only through him,” Ramsey said. “I suppose I did think things would go better, not that I’m surprised that they didn’t.”
Chau moved around a lot, and worked various jobs. “It’s never easy to answer to 'What does he do?' and 'Where does he live?'” Ramsey said. Chau worked as a forest ranger, spending summers in Northern California, Ramsey said. He studied sports medicine at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The two friends met while traveling on a 10-day intensive trip to Israel three summers ago, and quickly became close. Both of them lived in Washington state — Ramsey moved to Cologne, Germany, in September — and they stayed in close contact.
Since Chau’s death, Ramsey posted a tribute photo on social media about his friend. He said he’s been getting a lot of hate comments, “saying, 'What a terrible person, he deserved to die.' I do find that a little distasteful to speak of the recently deceased that way.”
When BuzzFeed News noted that experts have said Chau could have wiped out the Sentinelese people because their immune system is not prepared for modern illnesses, Ramsey said he didn’t have enough information on the topic and didn’t know what to believe.
Ramsey encouraged Chau in 2016 when he first heard about the plan.
When asked if he regretted encouraging him, he said, “My tendency is to think I would still encourage him, but maybe do a little more research.”
“I would want him to be remembered as a martyr. Someone who put his faith first and was willing to die for it. I see him as a modern Jim Elliot, the kind of person who could impact and reach more people through his death than he ever could through his life,” Ramsey said, referring to a missionary killed in Ecuador in the 1950s.
“Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” Chau wrote in the journal entries obtained by the Washington Post. He wrote, “I think I could be more useful alive ... but to you, God, I give all the glory of whatever happens.” He also wanted God to forgive “any of the people on this island who try to kill me, and especially if they succeed.”
“There are people who say he was an imperialist wanting to impose religious or Western thought — I think that’s misguided thinking,” Ramsey said.
“His motivation was out of love for these people,” said Ramsey, “to give these people the opportunity to go to heaven when they die. I hope people come to understand that.”
—Lam Thuy Vo contributed reporting to this story.