Film marks the 20th anniversary of missionary Graham Staines’ killing in India

(COMMENTARY) Twenty years after Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two kids were burnt alive in their station wagon by a deadly mob of anti-Christian activists in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, an American feature film to mark Staines’ acts of love for the poor and the marginalized in the community will hit the theatres on Feb. 1 in the US and the following weeks in India and other parts of the world.

Staines came to India in 1965 to volunteer at a leprosy home in Mayurbhanj, linked to a mission headquartered in his native Queensland in Australia. Mayurbhanj is about 300 miles west of Calcutta, the city where the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa founded her international order, Missionaries of Charity, that serves the city’s underbelly and the castaways [earning her the name Saint of the Gutters].

Staines felt an inner urge to stay on – God’s call – to continue serving the leprosy patients and the community of tribal poor there. A local king, almost 100 years ago, had granted several acres of land for leprosy patients to receive care from missionary workers of the Australia-based Evangelical Missionary Society in Mayurbhanj [EMSM], founded by Kate Allenby in 1895.

Staines met his wife Gladys, a medical nurse, when she visited the Mayurbhanj mission to volunteer. The two married in 1983 and were blessed with three children: Esther, Philip and Timothy.

On the night of Jan. 22, 1999, Graham and his two sons Philip and Timothy, aged 10 and six respectively, had just returned to their make-shift home, a souped-up jeep station wagon Willys, after conducting a jungle camp for the tribal children. The 1990s witnessed a kind of resurgence of right-wing Hindu fanaticism following the 1992 demolition of a 15th century mosque in Ayodhya in the central Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Hundreds of people lost their lives in mindless communal riots that followed the dastardly attack on the religious structure.

The Least of These  portrays Staines, played by Stephen Baldwin, and his two sons, Philip and Timothy, before their murders in 1999. Photo submitted by Victor Abraham.

The Least of These portrays Staines, played by Stephen Baldwin, and his two sons, Philip and Timothy, before their murders in 1999. Photo submitted by Victor Abraham.

Hundreds of miles away from where Staines and his group of ministers were serving the community, a Hindu extremist named Dara Singh and his mob were sharpening their knives to launch attacks on missionaries like Staines. They didn’t like missionaries converting indigenous tribals, who are sometimes categorized by the government as Hindus and can be swayed into Hindu vote banks, to a foreign religion like Christianity. And when they spotted Graham and his two sons retiring for the night in their station wagon on that fateful night, the riotous mob led by Singh set fire to the station wagon while the trio were fast asleep.

It didn’t take long for Graham Staines and his two innocent children to melt away in that fiery furnace, ending up in a black soot of ashes. It took a while for Gladys and her daughter Esther to react to the horrific killing that shook the nation and reverberated around the world for the manner in which it was done.

The President of India at that time, Kocheril Raman Narayanan, came down heavily on the murder of innocent souls, saying the killings “belong to the world’s inventory of black deeds”. As a foreign service career diplomat, Narayanan, the first Dalit [untouchable] to become India’s President, was married to a Protestant Christian from the neighboring country Myanmar, also called Burma.

Gladys, raised a Brethren and a deeply religious woman, shocked the nation when she announced on national television that she forgave the killers because her Christian faith taught her to do so. While visiting Bangalore a few years after losing her family members in that macabre murder, she told this writer that while she forgave the killers in the true spirit of her Master, Jesus Christ, she didn’t interfere in the law of the land taking its own course. She had heaped so many coals on her enemies’ heads, to use a biblical phrase. Hundreds of Indians across the nation expressed their solidarity and support to her, commending her act of forgiveness and grace under such pressure. [Read this 1999 report from the magazine India Today.]

The Staines family as portrayed in  The Least of These . Photo submitted by Victor Abraham.

The Staines family as portrayed in The Least of These. Photo submitted by Victor Abraham.

The long arm of the law finally caught up with Singh who was charged with the killings and ordered a life sentence in a jail in Odisha. A year before he was killed, Staines had dreamt of setting up a referral hospital for the leprosy patients. While Gladys and her daughter returned to Australia in 2004, she continues to provide honorary leadership to the leprosy mission and raise support for the hospital that is slowly taking shape.

Much of the leadership for the hospital is currently provided by doctors from an indigenous mission hospital, simply called Christian Fellowship Hospital, in Dindigul, a few hours’ drive from Vellore in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Over 100 years ago there, an American doctor, Ida Scudder, founded India’s best privately-run medical college and hospital, popularly called CMC (Christian Medical College and Hospital). Its alumni, spread around the world today, form a large part of the team that is building the Graham Staines hospital as it is called now.

In 2005, the Indian government presented Gladys with the Padma Sri, the fourth-highest civilian honor in the country, while a host of community service organizations elsewhere also bestowed her with awards.

Mumbai-born Indian entrepreneur Victor Abraham, who migrated to the US in 1987 and founded the Skypass group of companies in Dallas, Texas, had for a long time dreamt of honoring the memory of Staines when he had first heard about his martyrdom for the faith. The desire to do something grew stronger after he visited the mission fields in Odisha on one of his visits back to India.

Abraham was inspired to produce this film to “show the power of love, overcoming hate and loving your neighbor,” he told The Media Project.

After Gladys had given her consent for the film project, he didn’t look back. The film, The Least of These, stars Stephen Baldwin, actress Shari Rigby and Indian actor Sharman Joshi. The title is from the words of Jesus alluding to serving the poor and the needy in His name, the marginalized people in the community, the least of these. It was shot on location near Hyderabad, India. Joshi plays an investigative reporter who scoops out the truth behind conversion allegations against Graham Staines. The movie sound track also features songs from award winning artists such as Michael W. Smith, Nicole C. Mullen and Toby Mac.

As Gladys once told me, “Somewhere in heaven, I imagine my boys playing with their loving father watching them.” And somewhere on the earth, missionaries like Graham Staines still serve, with fire in their bellies, setting the world on fire with the good news of Jesus.

The film will release in six Indian languages, including English. Some of the film’s proceeds will be given to a Staines mission home in Mayurbhanj.