Jacob Mendez
Jacob Mendez

“Mission”: Is it still possible to convert distant indigenous peoples today?

  • “Mission” is a documentary story about the death of an American evangelizer who decided to convert one of the last isolated tribes on Earth. Is such evangelization needed today?
  • The film will hit theaters on March 22, 2024.

The activities and death of John Chau (1991-2018) were widely discussed in the USA. The traveler and missionary had been preparing for many years to preach Christianity to the inhabitants of the Northern Sentinel. They are one of the last peoples to separate themselves from the world and radically refuse to have any contact with it. An estimated 200 to 500 people live on the small island in the Bay of Bengal. The tribe brutally drives away the intruders, and getting to the island itself is not easy, even through the coral reef surrounding it. Chau, despite being aware of the danger he was exposing himself to, decided to get to the island, which is prohibited by the law of India, which administers it. Chau was killed in November 2018. The fishermen whose boats he used saw tribe members dragging his body across the sand. It has not been recovered so far.

The death of an American missionary polarized public opinion. The dispute was not only between Christians, whose duty according to the Holy Scripture (interpreted in various ways) is to spread the teachings of Jesus Christ, and supporters of the secular world, who believe that nowadays conversion to one’s faith is a sign of disrespect for a foreign culture. Even among Protestant congregations in the United States, Chau’s mission aroused considerable controversy.

The creators of “Mission” do not judge his decision to evangelize the people who have been defending themselves against newcomers with arrows and spears for hundreds of years. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss refer to Chau’s surviving diaries, talk to his friends (some admire his actions, others reject them) and with supporters and opponents of evangelizing peoples who want to live apart from civilization. The National Geographic documentary aims to help us understand Chau’s perceptions and the sources of his fervent faith. The judgment is left to the viewers. As befits a thorough documentary based on old school reportage.

It should be emphasized here that Chau’s faith comes from the very specific Christianity of American evangelicals, which is often based on a literal interpretation of the Holy Scripture, free from Catholic or Jewish biblical exegesis. It is a faith driven by emotions, not reason. A passionate faith, but also sometimes fanatical and uncontrolled by institutions, as in the case of Catholicism. Chau came from a racially mixed family. My father came to the United States from China when he was a child to pursue his “American dream” as a psychiatrist. Chau referred to the legacy of his Chinese ancestors, but he was quickly drawn into religion and adventure books such as Robinson Crusoe and The Adventures of Tintin. A mixture of faith in the need to literally read Jesus’ commandments about converting pagans and the boy’s desire for adventure in the jungle ultimately pushed him to the decision to join one of the most isolated tribes on earth.

The creators weaved a story about Chau’s fate from his social media posts, diary, but also a very personal and moving letter from his father. The rest of the missionary’s family did not participate in the story. Does this reduce its value? It’s hard to say. Chau’s parents could undoubtedly shed light on their youngest son’s childhood, where his later fervor was formed, but “The Mission” was not only about understanding his decisions. It’s a much broader story. The authors present two points of view on the issue of missionary, which is at least controversial in times of demonization of every aspect of colonialism. However, “Mission” does not touch on either the theological or civilizational aspects.

Doesn’t a tribe living separately deserve the opportunity to learn not only about different religiosity, but also about medicine, science and other modern achievements? On the one hand, there is an argument that everyone who approached the island (not only whites, but also Indians) would infect the natives with their diseases, but maybe they would bring antibiotics for other diseases? Do we have the right to deny someone even the chance to learn about the achievements of our civilization? What about the right to choose? One of the basic human rights is also the right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion, which is manifested in attempts to convince dissenters to it. Should we ban it, as one former missionary argues? All religions or only Christians? The creators of “The Mission” cautiously glide through these fundamental questions.

It is good, however, that “Mission” draws attention to the importance of in-depth education and preparation of missionaries (unfortunately, despite Chau’s attempts, he did not have such preparation), who should thoroughly learn the culture and customs of the place where they intend to teach about their God. Without empathy, respect and humility, intercultural and interreligious dialogue cannot be attempted. Well, isn’t this what Jesus taught, whose words were so often distorted by his missionaries? This is also what this balanced, honest, but yet safely polished document is about.


“Mission” (“The Mission”), dir. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, USA 2023, distributor: Mayfly, cinema premiere; March 22, 2024.