In April 2000 I had the privilege of speaking at a JESUS Film Conference in San Diego, California. There are many things I could say about the conference, many reports that gave me goosebumps, but let me just tell you about Gladys and Esther Staines. Nanci and I and our daughters had dinner with them one night and got to know them through various conversations.
In January 1999 Gladys’s husband and sons, Esther’s father and two brothers, were martyred for Christ in India. (Graham Staines, a missionary from Australia who specialized in work with lepers, had showed the JESUS film to many, thus the connection with the JESUS Film Conference.)
On January 23rd of 1999, Graham and his two sons, Phillip (11 yrs.) and Timothy (6 yrs.) were murdered by a large mob of militant Hindus. They had gone to a Christian camp in the jungle, where Graham was ministering. At midnight the mob attacked, setting fire to the jeep in which Graham and his sons were sleeping. They were burned alive. When the fire finally cooled, they found the charred body of Graham Staines with his arms around the bodies of his sons.
Graham served the Lord in the jungles of Orissa for over 34 years. He was described as “a wonderful, gracious, self-effacing man of God, full of faith, confidence and humility; warm-hearted, and a wonderful father.” At his funeral, the streets were thronged with masses of people—Hindus, Muslims and Christians. They were there to show respect for Graham and his family and to show their solidarity against the actions of the killers. Despite the fact that persecution of Christians has increased in recent years, the president of India came forward and said, “that someone who spent years caring for patients of leprosy, instead of being thanked and appreciated as a role model should be done to death in this manner is... a crime that belongs to the world’s inventory of black deeds.”
The response of Gladys and Esther was on the front page of every newspaper in India (with one billion people, soon to pass China as the most populous nation on earth). Gladys said, “I have only one message for the people of India. I’m not bitter. Neither am I angry. But I have one great desire: that each citizen of this country should establish a personal relationship with Jesus Christ who gave his life for their sins...let us burn hatred and spread the flame of Christ’s love.”
Gladys shocked nearly everyone, because people assumed she and Esther would move back to Australia or somewhere else in the west. She said no, God had called them to India, and she would not leave. (In fact, she’d been very hesitant to even come to San Diego, as she didn’t want to leave the work even for a brief trip.) She said, “My husband and our children have sacrificed their lives for this nation; India is my home. I hope to be here and continue to serve the needy.” When asked how she felt about the murder of her dad, Esther, as a thirteen year old, said (in words that sound straight off the pages of the book of Acts), “I praise the Lord that He found my father worthy to die for Him.”
After Gladys spoke at the conference, an Indian national leader stood up and said that the impact made by the response of Gladys and Esther has been amazingly powerful, with many Hindus coming to Christ because of their witness. The people of India have looked at this situation and asked, “Why would a man leave his wealthy country and serve lepers in India for 34 years? Why would his wife and daughter completely forgive the killers of their family? Why would they choose to stay and serve the poor? Who is this God they believe in? Could it be that all we’ve been told about Christians has been lies? Could it be that Jesus really is the truth?” The people of India are seeing embodied in the Stains an otherworldly perspective and strength in Christ that stands in stark contrast to the dark, fatalistic and impersonal gods of Hinduism.
I look forward to meeting Graham, Timothy and Philip in the world for which we were made, the one made for us. And if I get there first, I’m putting in a request to be there for their reunion with Gladys and Esther.
The words of Hebrews 11:35-38 are appropriate not only of Graham and the boys but of Gladys and Esther. The passage speaks of the sufferings of God’s people: “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them.”
The world was not worthy of them....
Please pray for Gladys and Esther, as well as funding for the forty-bed leprosy hospital Gladys is hoping to be built in memory of Graham, Philip and Timothy.
[2013 update: the leprosy hospital has been built!]