Sheela’s Ghost

Her parents already had three other children.  One girl to cook, clean and care for their sons was enough.  So when 18 month-old Sheela got sick, they placed her on a dirty string cot and ignored her.  As her already tiny body turned skeletal, infected sores covered it and she was too weak to even shoo away the flies the pus attracted.

It was 1976 outside a rural village in India called Gatheora.  As Christ-followers, Vishnal and Ruth had just moved there to serve the people.  Ruth discovered Sheela as she went from house to house, and asked what was wrong.  The mother was dismissive. “She doesn’t eat anything. She throws up whatever we give her.”
“Have you taken her to the hospital?”
“How can we afford it?”
“I will pay for her treatment.”
“Where is the time to go to the hospital?”
“What do you mean?!  Your daughter is dying and you don’t have time?”
“I have three other children, and a husband to look after.  Besides, I can’t find my way around the hospital.”
“Ask your husband to go with you.”
“He has no time. He has to look after the cattle and the field.”
“Tell him I will pay for him to hire someone to look after his field for one day. I will also accompany you. Many hospital staff members are our friends.”  Vishnal got involved and eventually went so far as to threaten the father with murder charges if they didn’t get the girl care.

Finally the parents reluctantly agreed to take Sheela to the hospital.  A week later she had improved remarkably.  The doctors asked Vishnal and Ruth to continue treatment at their home.  They and other Christians living with them lovingly cared for Sheela for several weeks the Christians in the house .

One day mother appeared at the Mangalwadi’s door.  “The village folk are saying you are corrupting our daughter.  If she eats in your home, our caste will become polluted and Sheela will become a Christian.”  Ruth said they had been glad to care for the baby but assured the mother she was welcome to take her home anytime.

She did.  Again the little girl was neglected and within weeks, terribly ill.  The earlier process had to be repeated: Ruth intervened and pleaded with the mother, Vishnal threatened the father, and eventually the parents relented.  Sheela improved, was again sent to convalesce at the Mangalwadis, then returned home when the parents demanded it.   Soon she was dead.

Vishnal Mangalwadi recounts the horrific story in his book The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible created the Soul of Western Civilization.  He said he and his wife could not understand the parents’ lack of concern for this baby.  As Christians, their own worldview was different.  They looked as children as assets or liabilities, conveniences, or burdens.  We looked at them as human beings with intrinsic worth.  We believed that God’s command, “You shall not murder,” gave to every human person a fundamental right to life.  We did not expect to gain anything from Sheela.  We believed that loving God required loving her.

In The Brother Karamazov, Dostoevsky insisted that if God were taken out of the equation, anything would be permitted.  True too of the Bible since it is God’s voice.  But God speaks about much more than behaviors that are off limits.  He speaks first and foremost about Himself, His character, and His grand plan to reconcile people to Himself in Christ.  When we listen, it changes everything about what we value and don’t, which world we live for and which one we don’t, what we do and don’t spend our time doing, whom we defend, how we treat people, what we’re willing to endure, it even shapes our attitudes and demeanor.    

Ghandi ridiculed the way “You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilization to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.”
American “Christianity” is increasingly paying the price for ignoring, dismissing, or deconstructing God’s sacred voice.  Although Christian by grace through faith, the only way faith comes to us is by hearing the Word of God.  Not only is genuine faith initiated by the Word of God, it is nurtured and lived by that same Word.

Some Christians read the Bible regularly–convinced that it is the life-giving, soul-satisfying, unique nutrition that they cannot live without.  Others “believe” the Bible, but since they almost never read it know little about its Main Star, God’s grand scheme, or His will for them; it’s a book they can read or not read.  Others believe some of it’s true and believe they’re smart enough to know which parts.  But it was a couple who believed the Bible, read it, and were shaped by it that saved a tiny girl named Sheela 40 years ago.  Saved her, at least for several months.