Sheila Leech, a missionary who has been serving people all over the world, found God in a bar — or a pub as they call it in England.
It was a dusky, grimy place, overrun with Sargent Pepper loyalists rabble-rousing ‘neath Union Jack. After all, this was the UK in the 1970s — right in the heart of Beatlemania. It wasn’t the music that sent Sheila down a dark path, though. Her rebellious streak started long before, when she started using what she calls soft things. Like LSD.
You read that correctly: Sheila talks about LSD with the same nonchalance some people use for stealing lipstick, sneaking alcohol or other things that aren’t particularly good but usually aren’t life-altering either.
From LSD to Jesus
Sheila was born into a big family that had fallen away from the church. It was a good life, but things got tough for her when she changed schools and had to make new friends. Those friends proved to be bad influences, and she started using LSD before moving on to stronger drugs.
She got arrested a few times but never did any jail time. It was minor stuff, mostly shoplifting, but enough to land her in front of a judge.
Sheila visited a church during the dark time when she was using drugs and stealing, and in that church she learned there might be something better out there for her. But there’s a big difference between knowing you might not be a lost cause and knowing the Savior of the world loves you personally.
Thankfully, and perhaps ironically, Sheila wasn’t the only youngster getting in trouble in her small town. The problem was so bad that area churches banded together and visited the pubs, talking to the patrons there.
“They started visiting pubs where people like me hung out, people on drugs, people with bikes,” Sheila said. “The thing that I really liked about them was that they didn’t try to pretend. They came in with their nice jackets and ties and shirts and Bibles …They came in, and they just had one message and that was, ‘You know, Sheila, Jesus loves you. Jesus loves you so much that He died on the cross for your sins, and He will accept you exactly as you are. And He wants to change your life, and He wants to make you into a new person …’They didn’t just talk about God’s love. They showed it,” Sheila explained.
“It was just the pure love of Jesus shown through them, actually, because they certainly didn’t get anything out of it other than quite a lot of abuse, really.”
It took Shelia a while to wrap her head around the idea. She actually thought the Christians were undercover police officers at first before finding out they just wanted to give her enough coffee to sober her up and maybe tell her a little about a loving God.
But, eventually, Sheila did come around — at least to the idea that Jesus loved her.
Maybe it’s her British accent, or maybe it’s the way she talks about her adventures so calmly, but Sheila is exactly the type of missionary you’d want on your side in an emergency. She’s put together in a way that makes you think she wouldn’t panic or crack under pressure. Of course, that’s how she is now. But things weren’t always that way.
Her life didn’t change overnight the way some lives do when they accept Christ and quit drugs in one fell swoop. No, Sheila’s change took time.
After a couple of years going to the church the bar-going Christians had invited her to, Sheila finally realized she needed to do more than simply come around to the idea that Jesus loves her. She needed to give her life to Him.
“I surrendered my life to the Lord Jesus basically by saying, ‘God, this is a really bad deal, but if You can do anything with this rubbish life, then please take it and do something with it,’ ” Sheila said.
She also knew she needed help getting clean, so she admitted herself to a Christian drug rehabilitation program. Sheila spent a year in the English countryside, milking cows and goats, all the while learning about sustainable farming and the Jesus she met in a bar.
“I knew that God had saved me for a reason, and it was to serve,” Sheila said. “I didn’t know what that looked like. I never in my wildest dreams thought about being a missionary.”
Of course, God had other plans.
Sheila started going to a local Bible college a few days a week while she was in rehab. One day, Sheila met a couple who attended her church whenever they were in England. Most of the time the couple lived in Ecuador, where they devoted their lives to working with indigenous people.
After the couple went back to Ecuador, Shelia kept in touch. She wrote to them about maybe, possibly one day, coming over to Ecuador to work. Their response was startling.
They told Sheila to talk to a woman in her church, Glory Lilly, a woman known for her passionate prayers and Hallelujah outbursts.
“You know, the day you were baptized, they came up to me and said, ‘Will you pray for that girl because we believe God will have her in Ecuador one day,’ ” Glory Lilly told Shelia.
Shelia packed her bags and headed off to Ecuador without even knowing Spanish, much less the language of the indigenous people.
Sheila settled at the base of the Andes Mountains to work with the Tsachilas, better known as the Colorado Indians for the red paint they put on their faces. Their religion was a mix of Shamanism and Catholicism, leaving them to believe that the river goddess would send them water for crops, and the town witch doctors could heal them.
It wasn’t long before Sheila learned one important, albeit humbling, lesson.
“I think one of the big lessons I learned with my nine years among that tribe was how useless I was,” Sheila said. “I had nothing to offer … I thought I was this hotshot coming here to save the world. When you’re young, you’re kind of arrogant … and it’s like, ‘OK, God. Everything’s cool. I’m here now. I’ve got it.’ God just showed me … He didn’t need me at all. I could not survive without the Colorado Indians, but they got on perfectly well without me.”
Sometimes people came to her door with medical emergencies — an arm cut off with a machete or a woman in labor — and Shelia wouldn’t know what to do. In time, Sheila realized she could do more if she went back to school and pursued a nursing degree.
That’s exactly what she did. Sheila went back to England, earned her degree and returned to Ecuador with Reach Beyond, a medical missionary group that travels overseas to help unreached populations with healthcare and development.
After nine years in Ecuador, Reach Beyond sent Sheila to Nias Island in Indonesia to be part of a small healthcare team. But the team felt they weren’t much help, and on the way back they questioned why God brought them literally halfway around the world.
Soon they got their answer.
On the first leg of their return trip, Indonesia was hit by a 9.1-magnitude earthquake, followed by a 98-foot-tall tsunami that crashed into the coastline, flooding the town and killing more than 280,000.
In that instant, the small, healthcare team became first-responders.
They jumped back on a plane to get back to the island, and from their vantage point in the sky they could clearly see just how bad the devastation was. When they landed, Sheila was taken to a room full of women, all of whom were wounded or sick, and crying out in pain.
“I just didn’t know what to do,” Sheila said. “I kind of said, ‘God help me.’ It was filthy, and it was stinking, and so — this is really stupid — but I went and got a bucket of water and some disinfectant, and I cleaned the floors, which did not stay clean for very long. But during the time I was cleaning the floor, it was like, ‘OK. You know how to do this, Sheila. You’re a nurse. You’re trained …’ So I cleaned the floor, and after that I started on patient one.”
Wars, Waves and Other Disasters
Since her time in Indonesia, Sheila has been to Haiti, Lebanon, Ecuador and Peru to help with earthquakes, flooding and even healthcare systems that have collapsed under the pressures of war. During the emergency, team members don’t focus on sharing the Gospel. But once things settle down, there might be an opportunity to tell people about Jesus.
Recently, Sheila went to Pakistan to help a country ravaged by war.
“… we went in taking the incarnational presence of Jesus Christ on our team, and we prayed and we sang and we read Scripture in a place that had never happened before,” Sheila recalled. “With the women that we were seeing … they would line up, and they would come in, and they would tell us their stories. And we would listen.
“They would say, ‘My heart is beating very fast, and I have pain all over, and I keep crying and I can’t sleep.’ We would say to them, ‘You know, your heart is beating very fast because the Earth continues to move after an earthquake. You can’t sleep because the Earth is shaking. You hurt all over because your house fell on you. And the reason you are crying is, when the school fell down, you lost all your children. We have medicine to help you sleep. We have medicine to help the pain in your back and your side … and we have Someone who can bind up the brokenhearted.’ (Then) we tell them about Jesus.”
Praying with the wounded on the other side of the world is a far cry from where Sheila started off in the English countryside, but in a lot of ways, she’s doing the exact same thing as the Christians who visited bars, bailed her friends out of jail, and gave them coffee to sober up after a night of drinking.
She’s there to show God’s love without expecting anything in return.
And, in the end, that’s all we’re all here to do.