I did not know Graham Staines personally. In fact, I had never heard his name before, till that early dawn of January 1999 when I was woken up by my mother who had just got the morning newspaper.
She said a Christian missionary was burnt alive in Orrisa along with his two little children. I remember that though these were my waking moments, the news just shook me. Why would someone, anyone, commit such a barbaric act? What wrong had Staines done? And even if he was wrong, why would someone snuff out the lives of his two innocent children aged only 6 and 10.
What kind of hatred and inhuman madness was this? But most importantly what was Graham Staines fault? What wrong had he committed?
Over the next few days I started my own little investigation, making phone calls to people I knew as well as picking up information from newspapers and journals. I discovered that the ‘charge’ against Staines as per the alleged members of the Bajrang Dal, was that Staines was ‘converting’ people .
One of my former colleagues, I remember said that Conversion is a ‘threat’ to India in a vain attempt to justify the gruesome murder. I told him that I was an atheist who became a Christian, how am I a threat to India? Am I still loyal to my country and it’s Constitution? Am I not paying my taxes faithfully, am I not law abiding??.. So, because I have changed my belief should I also therefore be burnt alive? what justification is this? Does the Bajrang Dal or someone else who has the might, have the right to decide what I should believe and not believe? Is our country going to be governed by law or by lawlessness and murder?
I was deeply pained. My colleague had no answer. But I discovered Staines’ crime and why he had to be killed so gruesomely.
Graham Staines was born in 1941 Australia. At the age of 24 he came to India as a volunteer to serve tribals, in Mayurbhanj a remote tribal area in the state of Orrisa. Looking at the pain and suffering, Graham took a decision that he would dedicate his life in the service and upliftment of these tribals that much of our society chooses to overlook and ignore.
In time, he went one more step ahead in his ‘crime’ and that crime was to choose to serve the Lepers of India, that community that has been so reviled and considered unclean by mainstream society even after a cure has been found for Leprosy. Staines decided to make Orrisa his home. He left the comforts that life in his native Australia would have given him and chose instead the challenge of loving and caring for society’s most unwanted and outcaste. These outcastes were now to be his new family.
This was indeed his greatest crime.
For 34 years, Graham Staines worked among lepers in Orissa. By his own admission, he was a Christian missionary. In the Christian worldview, human suffering came because of man’s rebellion and sinfulness against the Creator. But also that God loves mankind so much, that He is out to redeem and make whole and heal all that is broken, hurting and lost. To do this task, He sends His missionaries once again to make the world beautiful. Staines comes from this tradition of service.
Staines bridged the gap between lepers and the rest of society that considered leprosy a curse. He helped people without discrimination, and never on this condition that they would become Christians. After his death, a judicial inquiry headed by Supreme Court Judge, D.P. Wadhwa, had cleared Staines of allegations that he had forcibly converted locals. There was no evidence of it, but there was plenty of evidence that he had indeed touched the lives of thousands in Odisha through his service.
The man who sacrificed much and came to make a difference in the lives of those who were anguished and in pain, instead of being acknowledged and honoured, paid the ultimate price – his own life and the lives of his two little boys.
But what touched me the most and I broke down, was when the newspapers carried the statement of Graham’s wife Gladys, that she had forgiven the killers of her husband and her two young boys. My colleague, who was telling me about how conversions are a threat to India had no words to say…he was just deeply ashamed.
Later, Swami Agnivesh wrote these beautiful words: Long after the sensational elements of this event subsides; we will still continue to be challenged by Mrs Gladys Staines’ spiritual stature as revealed through her response. Though wounded in her soul by the barbarity inflicted on her dear husband and darling children, she refused to allow her mind to be tainted by hate. She was quick to forgive her husband’s killers. Her prayer was that the love of God that inspired her husband may touch their hearts also. She had the spiritual magnanimity to recognise that those who had become mad with hatred are also children of God, and that they too deserve forgiveness. Her 13-year old daughter, Esther, thanked God for her father’s love for the people he treated — people afflicted with leprosy — and for finding him worthy to die for Christ. Can responses such as these fail to melt even the most hardened hearts?
Graham Staines was killed, but he lives on and the work for which he gave his life continues to this day. The Mayurbhanj evangelical mission now runs a hospital in his name focussed on treating leprosy patients. At Rajabasa, 10km from Baripada, a group of children — mostly orphans — has been housed at a residential school which was set up in 2003. The school is named after the two Staines boys.
For years after their deaths, even though I never knew them, Staines and his family has continued to challenge me and many others. Their lives and their deaths have been like unspoken words echoing through the corridors of eternity. Life is temporal and with what we have been given, we use it for making this world a better place and we know that this task is God given and it is not in vain, it can never be snuffed out.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.
-The gospel of John 1:15