What is True Spirituality?
The gruesome death of Graham Staines and his two sons reveals, among other things, a sterling example of a faithful witness.
"OH, INDIA!" came the first heavily-weighted words sent out by one of Graham Staines' long-time associates and co-laborers for the Gospel in India. He was passing on word that Graham, 58, along with his two sons, Phillip, 10, and Timothy, 6, had been burned alive as they slept in their jeep during Graham's fourteenth annual jungle Bible camp in the village of Monoharpur, in the state of Orissa. A native Australian, Staines was the director of the Leprosy Mission in Baripada, Orissa, where he had served since 1965. It was just after midnight on the morning of January 23 when the windows were broken out of Staines' jeep; gasoline was poured on and ignited; the jeep was then enveloped in flames. The screams that were emitted did not incite sufficient help to prevent the horror from continuing. But they may have awakened the nation. There are at least two obvious things that India has been made keenly aware of: the horrors of the Hindu fundamentalist movement's most radical fringe and, in the Staines example, an authentic faith with a depth of Christian spirituality hitherto unrecognized by many in India. The response of Graham's wife, Gladys, caught the attention and deep admiration of greater India when she offered a clear and public statement forgiving the perpetrators of the heinous act just days after the killings. While struck deep with grief, she expressed her hope that the perpetrators would be touched by the love of Christ.
Over 1,000 mourners—believers and nonbelievers alike—attended the Staines funeral. "Because He lives, I can face tomorrow; Because He lives, all fear is gone; Because I know He holds the future, And life is worth the living just because He lives," were the words uttered in song by Gladys and daughter, Esther, 13, as they blessed those who attended. Countless others lined the streets in honor of the Staineses. The hymns continued graveside and a deep hope was assured that "we shall meet again at the River."
"People of all religious backgrounds have been stunned by Gladys's testimony. For many, this has been their first taste of True Christianity," said a Staines long-time associate. In profound admiration of Gladys and Esther's response one Hindu exclaimed, "This is true spirituality!"
However noble Gladys and Esther's immediate response, one might well presume that the surviving family from this type of incident would return to their homeland after such a horrific ordeal. But Gladys insists that the thought of "getting up and leaving has just not occurred to me once. I just feel that this is where God has called me also." A former staff member of Operation Mobilisation, she will be taking over Graham's position, working with her daughter, Esther, and aided by the local body of believers. They have assured her: "We're here. You are our people and we are here to help you. Please do not leave." Apparently, "home" for Gladys is the simple, concrete-floored house adjacent to the Baptist Union Church in Baripada where she's lived since her marriage in 1983. Significantly, it is in Indian soil that the bodies of her husband and two sons have been laid.
Surely, it is terribly difficult for those close to Graham, Phillip and Timothy to imagine that their work on earth is finished. But Graham had been an instrumental force for the completion of at least one fine, enduring work of literature: the Ho language translation of the New Testament, just published in 1997. He had aided a church-planting movement among the Ho tribe which is scattered across the southern portion of Bihar state and the northern part of Orissa. He was fluent in three tribal languages: Ho, Santhali and Oriya. Reportedly, his mastery of the local dialects left his appearance as the only thing that gave him away as a foreigner.
"EVEN IN DEATH they were inseparable. Charred beyond recognition and reduced to fragile frames of ashes, the three bodies lay clinging to each other in what must have been a vain attempt to protect each other and escape the mob," wrote Ruben Banerjee in India Today. The mob of some 60 frenetic attackers that surrounded the Staines vehicle just after midnight are thought to have been associated with either the Hindutva Parivar, Bajrang Dal or Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)all militant groups affiliated with, or at least inspired by, the mounting Hindu Fundamentalist movement, RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) which was born in the 1920's.
Representatives of each of these groups have publicly distanced themselves from any direct affiliation with the savage killings though saying in essence that Staines "had it coming." One Bajrang Dal leader assured Outlook magazine they had no part in the incident, saying "Staines was a small-time priest. Why would we kill him?" Indeed, Staines did keep a low profile, but the character that has been uncovered reveals to India and the world a very big man.
The martyrdom of Staines and his two sons are by no means the first signs of violence against Christians in India. The growing vision of a pan-Hindu identitya Hinduism that "incorporates weaker sections such as Dalits and tribals in the Hindu mainstream"has created a number of militant responses from fringe elements who have what India's Frontline magazine has labeled a "twisted vision of a nation restored to pristine cultural purity." Across Indiaespecially in states like Gujarat and Orissa where the Christian populations are lowthe fight for this Hindutva1 has led to over 120 recorded acts of violence against Christians last year alone. The Staines example is simply the most grisly in the long list of atrocities against believersranging from gang rape and the exhumation of bodies from the grave to vandalism and complete destruction of churches. In the state of Gujarat (prior to the Staines episode), there were 28 churches destroyed in one month alone.
While the rise in tension has been growing dramatically over the last two years (see Dugger), Graham Staines had served the people of the Mayurbhanj district with relatively little fanfare for 34 years. When he landed in India, it was his 24th birthday January 18, 1965. He quickly developed a deep love for both the land and the people, convinced that this was for him the Lord's work.
But Staines' initial calling to missions had come eight years earlier, when he was 16. He had been raised in an evangelical home and was attending an open-air evangelistic meeting near his hometown of Palm Woods, Queensland, Australia. The specific call to leprosy patients came two years later as his devotional reading on Christ "moving on to other villages" coincided with a missions meeting where Miss Alcon challenged attendees to serve the lepers in the villages of Mayurbhanj. During the interim years he would witness the sad, early death of his father. Immediately afterward he embarked on two years of Bible school training. Shortly after completion, he was accepted by the Evangelical Missionary Society of Mayurbhanj.3
After beginning his staff work at the Leprosy Mission, Staines would serve towards the nurture and cure of lepers until his untimely death. He worked tirelessly to make the mission self-sufficient and a haven where patients were imparted with a sense of dignity. The dairy at the Leprosy Mission was initially stigmatized and scarcely used. Today, it is reportedly the only local dairy providing pure milk. Additionally, the mission grows its own rice and vegetablesand has become a model for another Leprosy Mission six miles away.
It wasn't until 1983 that Graham married Gladys in Australia. Together, they returned to serve India.
When Miss Alcon was struck with cancer in 1984 and forced to return to Australia, Graham took over as director of the mission. But it is unlikely that his leprosy work resulted in the targeting of Staines for killing. Rather, it was his more explicit evangelical workhis reputation as a preacherthat the Indian press cites as a cause to his being targeted. He was described as an excellent preacher "interesting and compelling." He was not, however, at the hub of any massive people movement. The Christian population in the state of Orissa is estimated at below 3 percent—up only 1 percent since 1981. Government reports indicate that there had been only one recorded conversion in the area within the last year. One Christian worker clarifies that though India may, indeed, have an official record of one conversion, their government records are not likely to match the "the Lamb's Book" which, he affirms, has recorded many more. Graham's mission work, was, in fact, quite fruitful. "There are people coming to the Lord regularly and the churches founded as a result of Graham's work are growing," he said.
Official reports indicate some 30 of 200 families in Manoharpur have become open followers of Christ over the past two decades. Graham's wife has assured the media that he was not a proselytizer"all he did was preach the Gospel," she said.
Though certainly not ashamed of the cross that he represented (and eventually bore), Staines did not force any conversions, his associate insists. "Why should we or who are we to want to do the work of the Holy Spirit?" he said. Rather, he seems to have been constrained to demonstrate the love of Christ in tangible ways. He taught everything from personal hygiene to Bibleserving on the Evangelical Missionary Society and the Rotary Club as well as aiding the local polio immunization drive.
The final spark that may have ignited this unspeakable act of violence was likely the refusal of tribal Christians in the region to recognize ancient tribal/Hindu customsleaving groups like the Bajrang Dal outraged.
WHAT SEEMS TO BE MOST STRIKING about Staines and the legacy he leaves is his deep love for India, unwavering endurance and faithfulness in service to a people deemed untouchable. Hindu and Christian alike describe him as a holy, humble man with a determined resolve to bless India.
One IMB (International Mission Board of the Southern Baptists) executive, recently returned from a tour of southern Africa, observed how very true a litmus test the old axiom wasespecially for mission workers: "What do people call you when you're not around?" If this is indeed a strong indicator of the indigenous opinion of an outsider, Mr. Staines passed with flying colors. He was known among those he served as Bada Dadaor, affectionately, "elder brother." India Currents magazine reported the brief reflections of one grown child of a leper who was aided in his studies by Staines: "He had promised to make me a big man in life."
This unrestrained investment of himself into othersfor the ultimate sake of God's gloryis at least a portion of the legacy he leaves. That legacy, according to friends and family, will record a life poured out for an entirely worthy cause. While watching a rise in tension across India last year, Graham commented that there was a concurrent development"a greater hunger for spiritual truth than ever before." His associate, recently returned from a trip to northern India, recognized that "people were more open than I've seen in the last 35 years. So the Graham Staines issue has actually opened the hearts and minds of peoplemore than any other single thing I've known. So it's not the time to crawl into our caves, it's time to get out onto the mountain topwith diplomacy and cultural sensitivitybut to keep on proclaiming the Gospel. This is the best time ever."
For those who are considering entering into missions workand may be set back by the Staines account Gladys has some poignant words of advice that echo more keenly because of the position from which she speaks: "Make very sure of your call from God and, once you're sure of it, be very prepared for whatever, even if it costs your life. We must learn not to hang on to our own lives, we must learn to allow God to use us. He will use us, He only gives us strength day by day."
While certainly struck with grief, her deep commitment to the mission cause remains undaunted. With her soft-spoken words, one must be careful not to miss the life challenge she lays at the feet of prospective missionaries: "If the Lord has called them, and if they're sure of their call, then go, and don't stay home."