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
How old are your children?
Jeff is 16, Mindy is 13, and Zach is
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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?
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
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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