Gracia Burnham

Jungle Captive

It seemed like the perfect anniversary getaway for New Tribes Mission missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham. A weekend at an island resort. But it turned into one of the worst nightmares imaginable. Abducted by the Azbu Sayyaf, a terrorist group with ties to Osama bin Laden, the Burnhams were thrust into a life on the run in the Philippine jungle. During a perilous year in captivity, they faced near starvation, frequent gun battles, cold-hearted murder, and intense soul-searching about a God who sometimes seemed to have forgotten them. In this interview with Servant editor Phil Callaway, Gracia talks about the struggles of losing her husband in the jungle, of the reality of forgiveness, and the secret to meeting difficulty head on.

Servant: Hi Gracia, thanks so much for your time.

Gracia Burnham: Youíre welcome.

Servant is published by Prairie Bible Institute up in Canada.

Yes, I know Prairie Bible Institute. Who started the school again?

L.E. Maxwell back in 1922. We have a mission aviation training center here, which is sort of interesting, reading your book with its aviation emphasis. A big part of what Prairie is about is missions, which obviously fits into your book. Where are you living now?

In Rose Hill, Kansas, just south of Wichita.

How old are your children?

Jeff is 16, Mindy is 13, and Zach is 12.

I just began reading the book last night. Itís an incredible story. Are you worn out from all the media attention?

Well, Iím not real comfortable with it. I donít like being in front of cameras. But I can do this for a little while because this will pass.

Are you surprised by the media interest?

Yes, very surprised. I was surprised when I got back to the US and saw how many people had followed us and knew about this and had been praying for us. Today I went in to get a sandwich at a little shop in Wichita and the guy behind the counter recognized me and came around and gave me a big hug and brought me a bunch of bagels to bring home. I was shocked. Wichita, Kansas, isnít such a huge place. But Iíve had people say to me, ďWeíve been impressed like weíve never been impressed before to pray for you daily.Ē I think people who donít have that happen to them a lot kind of became prayer warriors and I just have to figure it was the Lord.

Any story that comes to mind regarding the media interest? Did you tell your story to someone you couldnít believe was listening?

Probably the Dateline interview. I got to meet Katie Couric and spent the afternoon talking quite freely with her. A lot of that was edited out, of course. I also spent time with her producer and he talks like he knows the Lordóhe has religion anyway and I was able to talk with him some. It just seems like unusual people will listen to me. Most anyone in an airport that I sit down beside will listen to my story and Iíve been shocked. I sat with a rabbi on the plane on the way to New York and we had some good discussions about Messiah, We kind of had a common bondóweíve both been hurt by Muslim terrorists.

Why did you go to the Philippines in the first place?

Martin grew up on the mission field, his parents were tribal missionaries in a village in the mountains where there were no roads. In order for them to get in and out they built an airstrip and had a pilot. Martin went off to boarding school at Faith Academy in Manila and for him to get home on holidays, he flew in a small missionary airplane. And thatís probably where he got his love for flying. He came back to the States and got his pilotís license and all his airplane mechanics licenses and decided to use his gifts and love of flying on the mission field. And thatís where I came in. He went to Calvary Bible College to finish his Bible training and thatís where we met. I was really happy that the Lord let me marry a missionary.

Bible College is a great place to meet a spouse. I did the same thing. Help me understand, though, why would you go to another culture and try change them? Shouldnít we just be leaving them alone?

We hear that a lot. I think a person who would ask that question needs to visit one of these place where they think the people are so happy because some of the villages that our missionaries have gone into, when a woman is in labor about to have a baby, they send her into the jungle all by herself and if she comes back, ok. If she doesnít come back, sheís not ok.  People like that are not happy and the anthropologists who go and study them donít want to stay there because itís such a great place. They want to come home where thereís plenty of food, a hot shower and the final answer to that is that people need the Lord. We happen to believe that if those people donít hear the gospel of Jesus, theyíre going to die in their sins. People need to know that thereís a Savior and how will they hear if nobody goes to tell them?

Your captors were linked to Osama bin Laden.

When we were first on the boat and they asked Martin to give his statement to a radio station, that we had been taken hostage, right away they said, Tell them itís the Osama bin Laden group. And that didnít really mean anything to us at the time. So Martin said, Either Iím going to have to write that down or Iíll forget it, or weíll need to use another word. They gave us another term and we didnít know that either, so finally they said, Just say youíre taken by the Abu Sayyaf-Janjalani group and that was the local leader who we had heard about on TV and read about in the newspapers, so that was a term that Martin was familiar with and he chose that term.

You were in captivity on September 11, 2001. How did you hear about it?

One of our captors had a short-wave radio and spoke fairly good English and he had Voice of America tuned in and when he heard about it, he called Martin over.

Was your response disbelief or wondering if he was being accurate?

We wondered if the radio was being accurate. We went to bed that night thinking there were 50 or 60 thousand deaths. We just hoped against hope that that wasnít true. Then we really didnít hear much more about it. Itís like it was an event in time and right after that the military found us and we were on the run so we didnít spend days just listening to news.

Tell us about your captors. How would you characterize them?

Well, a lot of them were just a group of kids 17 to 25, guys who didnít have any means of support, no jobs, the economy was really bad. Most of them came from poor families who had no money and this was a way for them to make money. A lot of those guys just wanted to get marry and they had to have a dowry to do that. So they joined the Abu Sayyaf because once the ransom came through, they were going to have a big payoff. I would say the majority were in that camp and I found it hard to fault them. Of course they were the bad guys, but really they were just lost people and of course theyíre going to act that way. A very, very small minority of these guys were bent on jihad. And some of them were people who found a convenient religion were they could just act out being a bad guy.

Would you characterize them as devout Muslims?

On the other hand they probably were. What we had mostly in the Philippines was what we called folk-Islam, the ladies donít have to wear all the covering, just a head covering. They pray towards Mecca five times a day, except if theyíre in jihad they are excused from two of those. So they were Muslims and they were devout Muslims, but they werenít an extreme group.

Did you end up telling some of them about your faith in Christ?

Yes, there were about 5 or 6 who spoke half-decent English. Then we heard about 5 different languages being thrown around among the rest because thatís how the Philippines is, it has about 80 different languages. You can go a few miles down the road and a whole new dialect kicks in. So there were many dialects, even amongst our small group. We knew one of the dialects, but mostly we shared the gospel in English and I know that the leaders and those who understood heard the gospel from Martin, some of them several times because if we thought we were in a safe place, we often sat for a long time with nothing to do. Sometimes we stayed for weeks in the same area if there was no military around and the guys loved to talk about anything. Martin was always good to talk to them about the Lord. He gave the gospel at least once to everyone that spoke English, many times to the leaders, Sabaya and Silima.

How did they respond?

I was shocked to find out that several of them knew the gospel. During his growing up experiences, one of them had lived with a Christian family when he had nowhere else to go and several of them could quote John 3:16. So it wasnít like they had never heard the scriptures before or they didnít know what Christianity was all about. They had made a choice to be Muslims.

Did you learn anything about ministering to Muslims that might be helpful to others?

My only expertise is from living with these guys for a year and observing them. The first question Martin and I had when we first were taken was were we worshipping the same God these guys were worshipping? And we started making notes of the characteristics of Allah. Heís the one who made everything; heís all-knowing, heís sovereign over everything. Because he made it, heís the ruler over it all and he has the authority to say things will be this way or that way. Heís the righteous judge; heís going to be the judge in the end. Heís the one who makes the rules, and they went on and on and we came to believe that we were talking about the same God we Christians worship, Jehovah. Then one day they were talking about the names of God that show his different characteristics. Heís merciful, and all these different things. I asked if one of the names for their God was love. Does Allah love you? And you could see him thinking and he said, ďNo, Allah doesnít love us and weíre not asked to love Allah. We just worship him because heís the true creator.Ē So I told Martin, with a god who doesnít love you, this is where that religion leads, to something like this. If I started teaching Muslims, I would teach the characteristics of God, the ones they already know and then say, ďHereís one you havenít been taught: God is love.Ē And give them the Old Testament scriptures that talk of His love. Theyíre very agreeable to talk about the Old Testament  scriptures. They know all about Noah and David and Adam and they call them the prophets. So theyíll listen to you talk about the Old Testament and there are plenty of verses that talk about God loving us. I think theyíve just been deceived in their concepts of God. Thatís what New Tribes Mission always taught us: when you go into an area, try to use their name for God unless heís just totally different.

Itís interesting that they would know John 3:16 without the concept of love coming into it.

It blew me away. One of them, Solaiman, would say to me, Islam is a religion of justice and weíre going to get justice for everything bad that has happened to Muslims and he would go back to the Crusades and on up. And we told him that Christianity is a religion of mercy. We know that weíve sinned. And thatís another think about Muslims. Their concept of sin is like ours. God wonít tolerate it. They know that everyone has sinned. I remember saying to him one day, ďWe need somebody to show us mercy because weíve sinned. Somebodyís got to pay for our sin or weíre going to have to. And thatís what Jesus did. Jesus paid for our sins so theyíre removed and we donít have to bear that debt anymore and weíre not going to be judged by our sinfulness.Ē Solaiman got this sneer on his face and said, ďWhereís the justice in that? Iím going to pay for my own sins.Ē And we were so sad when we went to bed that night and Martin said, ďThatís exactly whatís going to happen. Solaimanís going to pay for his own sins and it wonít be a pretty sight.Ē

You reveal in the book that Martinís handcuffs had rusted out. He could have escaped if he had wanted to, but he chose not to.

He chose to stay there for me. We talked about escape. How far we would get. And he would always say, ďIf we let this run its course and somebody negotiates us out, weíre going to get to go home to our kids. If we bolt and run and it fails, weíre going to be dead.Ē


Was it tough to be man and wife in this situation?


The lack of privacy meant that the only affection we could give each other was to look in each otherís eyes and say, ďI love you.Ē We said that a lot. Muslims donít show affection a whole lot, man and woman, so we just tried to be very careful about that. There were a few times that I just really felt like I needed Martin to touch me, you know to feel him touching me, so after the sun would go down, when no one could see, he would brush my hair. And I would just say every once in a while, ďDo you think when everybodyís asleep you could brush my hair tonight?Ē

You said goodbye to him before he died.


I think each time those guns started going off, we said goodbye. There was one day I gave an official goodbye, a speech to him. There was artillery falling all around us one evening. It was on toward dusk and it was just mighty close, and I was so, kinda scared, and we were just sitting, resting. And I said, ďOh Martin, I just have to officially tell you goodbye,Ē and I just gave this big speech about how life with him had been good. And he kinda laughed at me and said, ďYou know, Iím not sure this is a healthy thing youíre doing.Ē

Tell us about the night you finally did say goodbye.

It was going to rain, so we set up our hammocks and our little plastic shades over our hammocks. Before we laid down, he said to me, ďYou know Gracia, I donít know why the Lord has allowed this to happen, but today Iíve been thinking about Psalm 100, how we can serve the Lord with gladness.Ē He said, ďJust because weíre here, doesnít mean we canít serve Him with gladness, so letís serve the Lord with gladness.Ē And then we prayed together and lay down for our nap and the gunfire started.Ē Weíd been trained to hit the ground, but before I could even hit the ground I was wounded. And it was wet already because it had been raining, and I kind of slid down the hill, it was a very steep hill and I came to rest by Martin. And I looked over and he was bleeding from his chest, so I could tell heíd been shot in the chest. And I knew from experience that that was not good. And he just lay there, kind of like he was in a deep sleep, kind of like he was snoring, he was just kind of breathing heavy and all of a sudden he just got real heavy, and uh, I had never been around anyone that was dying, so I thought maybe he just passed out. I was doing my best to just look dead, because the last thing I wanted was for the Abu Sayyaf to leave Martin there and cart me off into the woods. And Martin had always taught me to keep my head in a gun battle, so I was just lying there trying to look dead. When the shooting stopped, I couldnít hear the voices of my captors. I heard members of the Philippine military speaking, so I just slowly started moving my hands around so they would know I was alive, but I wouldnít scare them, I didnít want to get shot. They saw me right away and they came down, and they couldnít get a good grip on me because I was wet and it was muddy. So they started dragging me up the hill and I looked back at Martin and he was white. Thatís when I knew.

When everything is taken from you, what becomes vitally important to you?

Right away our careers, our jobs even as missionaries, are not what concerned us. It was our children, and our walk with God. Thatís all that became important to us and we didnít care what was happening back at our house. We knew the people in the tribal villages would survive, they would come up with another pilot somewhere.

Was there something that surprised you about yourself in this experience?

Iím a pastorís daughter and Iíve always been a pretty good one, Iíve never given anyone any trouble. But suddenly my good life was gone and I was in the midst of a horrible situation. And week after week after week God was pleased to leave me there and that got to where that really irked me and I saw a real sinfulness within my self that I didnít want to think existed. Attitude, hatred, bitterness, questioning Godóall that just rose to the surface and I was shocked to see it there. So I had to make some decisions: are you going to trust God in this or are you going to stay bitter? And I just made some decisions and I still am, I believe that this was the best. Iím not God and who am I to tell Him what to do? Heís the ruler of this and He made me and He can do what he wants.

Can you think of any ways that this has changed you?

My kids say Iíve changed a lot. I was the one who wanted the home to be perfect and we did everything right. Everybody kept a straight room and brushed their teeth. I was the driver of our family and Martin was the one full of grace. And I think I learned in the jungle it doesnít matter if you have a messy bed, it doesnít matter if you brush your teeth or not, it doesnít matter if you go to school today wearing the same clothes you wore yesterday, which Zach tends to do, it doesnít matter if youíre on time for church. I think the Lord would be more pleased with a family that gets there ten minutes late but they love each other rather than pushing to get to church on time and everybody hating each other as they get out of the car on Sunday morning and I hope I havenít become too lenient but I try to focus much more on what really matters. Sin in your life matters because thatís going to hinder your relationship with God, thereís got to be discipline there, but if my kids get to school with homework undone because they were having fun the night before with friends, I guess I donít care so much. Thereís enough work in life. We need to enjoy life and not put so much pressure on one another to perform and be perfect.

So are you giving me permission to take my sons golfing later today?

Yes! Go golfing and laugh, do a lot of laughing.

I get in trouble for doing too much of that. As believers in Christ, itís easy to talk about joy until we face some great obstacle. How did you come through this incredible difficulty with joy in your heart, which is evident as I talk with you?

I donít know. The Lord has given me joy and we can have a hard day here at home, but Iím still just dumb enough to be really, really happy. And even when they were dragging me up the hill from Martin and I could see he was white and I could tell he was dead, you know what? I was so happy in my heart that I was getting out of there. I canít explain it, but I donít think I have to feel guilty or deny it. Even that first night in the embassy when I was going to sleep by myself and Martin wasnít there I was so happy to be out of there. Iím happy and Iím not going to pretend Iím not.

And you know youíre going to see him again one day.

Yeah. Soon.

I was just reading in Acts 7 this morning where Stephen was martyred and prayed, ďLord, donít charge them with this sin.Ē Like Stephen you say youíve forgiven your captors. How is that possible?

ďThatís the least I can do I think. Iíve got one of their pictures on the fridge, and we pray for him. A lot of those guys were bent on jihad and they truly believe in what they were doing. A lot of the young kids just needed a dowry so they could get married. Itís very important for a Muslim man to get married, and how are you going to come up with a dowry if your familyís poor. Itís just kind of hard to fault people for that.
I know but for the grace of God, there go I. People ask if I ever say, why me? And I do, but I also say why was I born in America where I grew up knowing the gospel and I had a great family and I never missed a meal and always had plenty of clothes and a nice place to live and lots of friends? Life was so good for me. Why did that happen? If Iíd been born in the Philippines in a little Muslim village, I would be just like them. Iím just really grateful to the Lord that thatís not me or one of my kids, tramping through the forest with an M-16. We know the truth and the reason theyíre doing that is because they donít know the truth of the gospel, they donít know what it feels like to be forgiven. Theyíre trying to work their way to heaven, theyíre trying to be good enough to be accepted by Allah.

What about those who have awful things happen and they grow bitter?

Itís just a matter of perspective. If youíre expecting a world thatís perfect, a world that treats you right, and bad things happen, you give yourself a reason to blame God for the situation youíre in. I really think this is a better way to go. The truth is, God was good to us every day in captivity.

You spent 376 days in captivity and you can really say that?

Here in America we are blessed with good things every day and we donít know it. If weíre thirsty we go to the sink and get a drink. If youíre hungry, you go to the fridge and get something to munch on. When youíre in the jungle and you need a drink, you ask God for some water. And if God sends it to you, Godís been good. I know what it feels like to be thirsty and begging God for a drink, then getting one and just being so grateful that I had a drink of water. On Thanksgiving Day this package showed up, chock full of stuff, crackers, peanut butter, deodorant, soap, spice packets. It was wonderful and later that afternoon we just werenít even thinking that was Thanksgiving Day [crying]. What a neat thing, God sent us something on Thanksgiving Day. God was good to us every day. I came out of that situation with some sanity. And thatís Godís goodness because there were days when I wondered if I was really going to lose my mind. One more gun battle, I would think, is just going to push me over the edge and Iím going to be nothing. And Martin would say to me, ďGracia, what good is it if you go home to your kids and you donít have a sound mind? Let the Lord take care of your mind and letís just trust the Lord for this day. If we canít trust the Lord for this day, letís trust the Lord for the next hour, or until we get to sit down again, the next rest stop. Letís trust the Lord that long.Ē Martin was just as strong mentally when he died as when he went in. That was Godís grace.

He sounds like an amazing guy. Is he making trouble up in heaven right now? (laughter)

I used to tell the kids, I can just imagine your dad pulling on Godís sleeves saying, ďThereís Gracia, she needs a car, she needs something.Ē And then I told the kids why would almighty God who knows us and loves us and died for us need a human to tell him what we need. And I switched my thinking to God pulling on Martinís shirt sleeve and saying, ďHey Martin, look what Iím going to do for Gracia and her family.Ē

What do you miss the most about him?

He was an excellent pilot. He had a huge laugh. I think people would characterize Martin as a man full of generosity. He was always giving. It wasnít just money, often it was. Being in a foreign country you see a lot of needs and Martin was one of the first to give to anyone who needed it. But even in his time and effort he would fly in to the tribe and if somebodyís steps were falling apartóand many of those translators donít know how to pick up a hammeróMartin would fly in someoneís groceries and stay there and help fix things that were busted. Martin was an affirmer. We would get in a taxi to go from our house to town and by the time we got to town he would know the taxi-driverís name and how long heíd lived in our area, how many children he had, if he had any problems. He was just that kind of person.

What a legacy for your children.

I hope they can be like him.

How are they doing?

They are doing well. They are normal kids and normal kids have their problems but they are good kids. Every once in awhile Iíll sit down with them because people like you keep asking, and Iíll say to them, How are we doing? How are you doing with your dadís death? How are you doing with the situation we find ourselves in and they say, You know, Mom, weíre doing fine. Tell everybody weíre doing fine. And they are. You can tell in their spirits, theyíre growing in the Lord, they love the Lord, I donít see bitterness. You know, they miss their dad, but mostly theyíre happy that weíre together and that one of their parents came home. Theyíre looking at the good. They donít sit around and cry because Martinís gone. We sit around and enjoy each other because Iím here.

My wife lost her father when she was eight, she watched him drown. And she never really talked about it, so Iím glad to hear you say those things.

We talk about Martin a lot, especially on holidays like Christmas and Easter and Motherís Day. The other night Zach was setting the table for supper and he set five plates and he walked over to me and said, ďOh, Mom, I was just going to ask you if Dad would be home for supper.Ē He said, ďHow could I forget something that important?Ē And it wasnít that he was upset that Martin wasnít there; he was upset at himself for forgetting. So we just sat down and talked about how weird the human mind is. I think that was a healthy exchange.

What would you say to readers in closing, to people who have not been where youíve been, but theyíre struggling in one way or anotheróthey depressed or whatever it is?

I guess I would challenge them to look at the good things in life because theyíre everywhere if youíll just open your eyes to the good things. Start making little tick marks on a piece of paper every day, the good things. Watch for the good things God does because he does them all the time. I guess the other thing is that one person can make a difference in this world. It doesnít take a hero; Martin and I were not heroes, we are very, very normal everyday people just doing what God wanted us to do. And I think we made a difference there in the Philippines. But I think my days of making a difference are not over. I think I can make a difference in Rose Hill, Kansas and it can be my neighbor who comes over to borrow my rake, whatever it is. I think if we will just let the Lord use us, we can make a difference in this old world.

Would you consider heading back to the Philippines?

I would. I donít think I will when I have the kids. I was a good pilotís wife, but the pilotís gone and if I went back I would have to learn a language and for me that would take a lot of effort. And I want to be putting my efforts into my kids. I think my days of ministry are over until the kids are on their own and after that I figure I can do what I want to do and that might lead me back to the Philippines. Iíd love that, but weíll see.

How would you like to be remembered when all is said and done?

I guess a person of generosity like Martin. I would like people to know that I credit anything good thatís come out of this with the grace of God and I want people to see Godís grace in my life. I think what Martin and I figured out was, maybe we were just there to bring some light into a dark place, or some praise into a dark place spiritually, you know, just being people that could praise the one true God in the middle of nowhere where no one else was doing it.Ē

Bless your heart. I appreciate your time so very much. Thank you, Gracia. 

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