A Conversation With Gracia Burnham
In the Presence of My Enemies
June 1, 2003 - Early on the morning of May 27, 2001, missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham were seized at gunpoint while celebrating their wedding anniversary at an island resort in the Philippines. For more than a year, they were held captive in the jungle and kept on the run by the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group thought to have ties to Osama bin Laden. The Burnhams faced exhaustion and starvation, and Martin was often chained to a tree at night. Through their ordeal, they relied on each other and on the faith they brought to the Philippines to proclaim. In the process of their rescue, Martin was killed and Gracia was injured by indiscriminate fire from government troops. Here, Gracia talks about their ordeal—and how God saw her through.
by Jim Dailey
Q: During your 377 days of captivity, you seemed to keep a level head in trying circumstances.
A: Martin was the practical one—he kept me sane. He was always upbeat and positive and would say, "We're going to make it through this. Let's just go one day at a time."
But through this entire episode, I've learned that the Lord has given me the grace to handle things. When bad things happen to some people, they are thrown into a tizzy. I've never been that way. I wonder if God made me this way so that I could survive what I went through.
Q: So you think that the Lord prepared you for what happened?
A: Yes. He prepared my personality. It's not that I don't feel deeply; I just don't spend time thinking about how I feel.
During our captivity, one of the other female hostages was taken by a captor to live with him. We prayed about this over and over, but she was still forced to live with him. My mind could have run wild asking God why He allowed this to happen. I had to make the conscious decision that although I didn't understand the tragic circumstances, I would continue to put all of my trust in the Lord.
Q: Did you ever experience a crisis of faith during your captivity?
A: When Martin and I were first taken captive and put on a boat, I had mentally given God 10 weeks for the ordeal to be over. I figured that we would be released and we could take a furlough in the States. We often got our hopes up when we would hear about the possibility of being ransomed. At month two, one of the terrorist leaders came to us and said, "Someone is going to ransom you out this week." Martin and I talked about how great it was that someone was coming through for us. But that never materialized. Then they said that the country of Malaysia was participating in negotiations for us. That fell through as well—and I fell through with it.
At that point, 10 weeks into the captivity, I had a crisis of faith, though I was too proud to admit this. One day during that 10th week, I was sitting by the river and realized that my depression and my anger against God weren't doing anything to make our situation more bearable. I knew that I had to choose between giving in to my resentment, which would plunge me into a psychological and emotional hole, or I could choose to believe what God's Word says to be true—whether I felt it was or not. It was as if God were saying to me, "If you're going to believe that I died for you, why not believe that I love you?"
Q: Did you ever imagine that the Lord would use a year's captivity in a treacherous Philippine jungle to teach you these lessons?
A: No. I hear myself say something like, "It was a really good year. It was good that I was afflicted, because look what I've learned about God." And then I think, "You've got to be crazy! How could that year have been good?" But it was.
People have asked me, "Has your walk with the Lord improved since you got out of the jungle?" I tell them that when I get thirsty now, I walk to the sink to get a drink. Nothing is driving me to say, "God, I need a drink. Could You supply one for me?" When it comes to mealtime, I go to the fridge and make supper, and it never crosses my mind to ask God to supply something for me. In the jungle, every little thing we received was a gift from God. Here in America, it is, too—but we forget so easily. When you are suffering and throwing yourself on God, that's when you are closest to Him.
Q: After you were rescued, you said at a press conference that you and Martin wanted "everyone to know that God was good to us every single day of our captivity." How could you say that in light of the harsh treatment you received?
A:I think we saw what could have been happening to us. Things could have been so much worse. I could have been sexually assaulted, and I wasn't. They could have beaten Martin daily, or they could have tortured us—but they didn't. As bad as it was, things could have been so much worse. There were many times when we'd be feeling down and pray, "God, could You show us Your goodness today?" Then, for instance, a beautiful dragonfly would land on a branch near us and hover around us—a diversion from the monotony of our ordeal.
I recall one instance when, after a gun battle with government troops trying to rescue us, someone came to us with a big basket of a Filipino fruit that I particularly loved. Martin looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, "Hey, this is your favorite fruit, isn't it?" Right there, in the aftermath of that gun battle, we were smiling and laughing because God had plopped some delicious fruit in our lap.
On another occasion, we received a package from our mission agency filled with goodies and a replacement for Martin's eyeglasses that the guerrillas had taken. We didn't realize until the day was almost over that it was Thanksgiving Day. Who but God could have brought a package into the jungle? We never found out how it got to us.
And then there was this unforgettable moment when we were allowed access to a radio. Somehow, only God knows how, we tuned in to a religious broadcast that was coming from Alaska. The sermon was on Romans 8:31-34. I'll never forget what the pastor said: "If you are in the midst of a hard situation, and if you could hear Christ in the next room praying, you wouldn't be afraid of thousands of enemies." He also prayed for persecuted people—it was like he was praying for us, and God wanted us to know.
I've learned that if you're looking for God's hand, you'll see it. If you're not, all the good things He's giving you will still come—because God is good—but you might not recognize them.
Q: How did you feel toward your captors?
A: Most people become missionaries because they love people. We love people. We loved having people over and finding out about their families. We also would find out about our captors' families. Some of them were orphans. Some were outcasts. One of the guys had lost his wife in childbirth. He had no job and his family was poor, so he joined Abu Sayyaf to make some money. He didn't like shooting or being shot at or carrying heavy loads through the jungle any more than we did. He merely made an unwise choice.
Q: Your captors were a radical Muslim group. What did you learn about Islam and how did you share your faith?
A: We would try to explain what a true Christian was. When we first were taken, they were trying to show us all the similarities between Christianity and Islam. I asked Abu Solaiman, the group's leader, if one of the characteristics of Allah was love, and he said, "No, Allah doesn't love people."
If I were teaching in a Muslim culture, I think my first lesson would be that God loves us. We had so many gun battles in which no one was killed or wounded. Several times our captors said to us, "You see, Allah is protecting us." I didn't want to hear that. In my head, I knew that God was gracing them with another day so that maybe they could hear the Gospel and their hearts could be changed. His time for them wasn't up yet.
Q: It's been just a year since you were rescued. How have you adjusted to life after captivity?
A: I miss Martin. The other night, I asked my son Zachary to set the table. He went to the cupboard and got out five plates and cups—enough to include Martin. He took them to the table and said, "Mom, what am I doing? I almost asked you if Dad was going to be here for supper tonight." Martin was gone so often with his work that we often asked that question. I miss Martin the most when something goes wrong, or when the kids need to be two places at once. In Martin I also lost my best friend. The community where I live now in Kansas has opened up its arms to me, but no one can replace Martin.
I think of every day as a gift now. I choose to accept the freedom that I have now as a gift and to be happy. Every day, things that I don't know how to deal with happen to me, but I'm not going to let that rob me of my joy. I am free, and I have my kids and this wonderful house to live in. I'm not going to mope about what happened. Of course, I wish I could change things, but that is not the plan God had.
On the Run
The following is an excerpt from "In the Presence of My Enemies," by Gracia Burnham with Dean Merrill.
Cooking fires were lit, and the preparation began. Just as they were getting ready to begin cooking the meat, gunfire erupted, as it had the previous weekend. For the fourth time in less than two weeks, we'd been found by the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines).
The Abu Sayyaf immediately began blasting back with their M-16s, spraying bullets in every direction. Meanwhile, we hostages hastily gathered our belongings, wondering if these would be our final minutes on earth.
"Run!" came the order. We dashed up the hill, trying to get away from the advancing troops. I gasped for breath but could not stop; I had to keep going as fast as I could. As I ran through the jungle, I heard an unfamiliar sound. First there was a THUMP! Then a few seconds later, we heard a SHWOO WOO WOO overhead. A short while later, I heard the same THUMP! But this time, the sound was followed by an explosion very close to where we were running. As we ducked down to avoid the blast, I realized what we were hearing: incoming artillery. Martin and I looked at each other in disbelief. "What in the world?" he exclaimed. "They're shooting artillery at us! They have to know the hostages are here—what's all this heavy firepower about?"
If this was the AFP's method for rescuing hostages, we were in deeper trouble than we had thought. The Abu Sayyaf had always wanted us to stay out of sight whenever soldiers were near, and now we quickly came to agree with them.