On Sunday, the Associated Press ran a story about Christians in India who are fleeing from persecution at the hands of Hindu nationalists. The article mentions briefly an incident that occurred in India about 8 years ago:
“In 1999, an Australian missionary and his two sons, aged 8 and 10, were burned to death in their car in Orissa following a Bible study class.”
This line appears in the story to provide background to the current Hindu persecution of Christians in India. But I remember when I first heard about this story, and there is much more to what happened than is indicated in the AP article.
Graham Staines ministered for 34 years as a missionary to lepers in India. On January 23rd of 1999, Graham and his two sons, Phillip (11 yrs.) and Timothy (6 yrs.) were murdered by a mob of militant Hindus. The attackers 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 subsided, they found the charred body of Graham Staines with his arms around the bodies of his sons (source).
The amazing part of the story is not merely the martyrdoms of the three, but the faithful testimony of Graham’s wife Gladys and daughter Esther afterward. Randy Alcorn tells the story this way:
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. . . 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.
Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field which a man found and hid. And from joy over the treasure he sold everything to buy the field (Matthew 13:44). What Jesus was teaching in this parable is that the King and His Kingdom are the most precious realities of the universe. To lose everything and to have Jesus is an eternal net gain. Gladys and Esther Staines knew that, and that is why they were able to respond to their loved ones’ murders in the way that they did. King Jesus is more precious than husbands and sons.
As I begin the New Year, I am happy to meditate on the glory of Christ revealed in the testimony of these two women. And I will pray that the Lord will give me and you faith that counts Christ more precious than all else.