Gracia Burnham reflects on her year with militant Muslim abductors

Gracia Burnham says these comics in the Taurug language have had an impact on her former captors.

Gracia Burnham says these comics in the Tausug language have had an impact on her former captors.

“The Burnhams, under torturous conditions, befriended their guards, comforted their fellow hostages and kept their faith in a God who seemed to have abandoned them.”

That was the view of USA Today in the wake of Martin and Gracia Burnham’s experience of being kidnapped by Muslim militants from a resort in the southern Philippines May 27, 2001.

The Abu Sayyaf Group seized several more guests and took them to Basilan Island, their stronghold.The missionary couple spent a gruelling year on the run with their captors, at the end of which both were shot – and Martin killed – during a gun battle.

Wording such as that found in the USA Today report warms the heart, of course, whether found in a missions hagiography or, even more, in a major secular publication. But Gracia Burnham’s own account of that year is surprisingly honest, humble and self-effacing

My wife Margaret and I were fortunate to be in the audience at North Shore Alliance Church last Sunday evening (January 22) as Gracia spoke. I hadn’t gone there to write an article, but simply because I’m a sucker for a good missionary story – and it seemed a good way to warm up for Missions Fest.

However, her talk made an impact on our hearts; following are some of the areas God continues to work in through Gracia.

1. Loving enemies isn’t easy

Gracia said the biggest change in her was in her attitude to her enemies: “Little by little, God gave me love for them.” Here is something she wrote for the Missions Fest magazine back in 2007:

I had always prided myself that I was a pretty ‘good’ person. After all, we had left the American dream to go overseas as missionaries, hadn’t we?

But in the jungle I came face to face with a Gracia I really didn’t want to see. A me that I didn’t want to believe existed. I saw a hateful Gracia. There were times that I really hated those Muslims for what they’d done to us – for the pain they were causing our family. . . .

And God in his faithfulness began to change me. As the months rolled on, we began seeing our captors as the needy kids that they were. My hatred was replaced with concern and even love for them.

But she made it clear at North Shore Alliance that not all days were good days; there were many ups and downs.

She described her experience with one 14 year old boy who took particular pleasure in making her life miserable. During one of the many gun battles with the army, he was injured, and became unable to care for himself. She saw his plight and decided – maybe because he was the same age as one of her sons – that she would wash his soiled pants, and in that act, began to care about him.

2. Making music

Gracia sang several times during her presentation – as she did during her year of captivity in the jungle. She often sang while walking, to pass the time – “It helped me keep my sanity.” Because she had grown up as the daughter of a pastor, she knew many hymns, and even most of the verses.

She developed a habit of singing them alphabetically, beginning with the first letter of each song; All the Way My Saviour Leads Me . . . Blessed Assurance . . . Close to Thee . . .

“There are no hymns for X and Y by the way.”

inthepresenceofmyenemiesIn her book, In the Presence of My Enemies, she pointed out that music had always been a big part of her life and she sang softly to herself all the time.

But during a crisis of faith, she would not sing ‘O Love That Will Not Let Me Go,’ because she was no longer convinced that God loved her. With Martin’s encouragement, and the recognition that God’s word is either all true or not true at all, she came through the crisis.

She wrote:

Gradually my singing increased. . . . ‘How Great Thou Art’ became our favourite.

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

The Abu Sayyaf never hissed at us for singing it. It sounded beautiful, and they liked music. More than once, Martin said to me, “Maybe God has put us here just to praise him in this very dark place.”

3. Keep planting those seeds

comics1“My kids and I had been praying earnestly for the guys who took us captive,” said Gracia, but she was still surprised when she discovered that there were Bible story comic books in the Tausug language her captors spoke. Missionaries had lived among their people!

Copies were sent to the prison where 23 of their captors were held. When Christian jail guards read the Burnhams’ story, they realized they had to forgive the prisoners, whom they had hitherto disdained.

Four Abu Sayyaf members have become Christians as a result of the changing attitudes of the prison guards and the comic books. Several have been in contact with Gracia.

One wrote: ‘Do you still remember the experiences we had?”

“Sounds like summer camp!” Gracia joked.

She added, “If I had known that even one of those guys would have become a Christian, that would have made the days easier. She has learned that when things seem hopeless, when even surviving seems dubious: “Keep planting those seeds. When you don’t see what is going on – just keep going on.”

4. Surprised by her ministry

Gracia Burnham at North Shore Alliance Church.

Gracia Burnham at North Shore Alliance Church.

Gracia had always seen Martin as the ‘real’ missionary in the Philippines. She was content to live in a small barrio, raise their kids and support Martin so he could fly fellow missionaries to various tribal areas.

She said a  U.S. government counselor – a fellow Christian – sent to help her with re-entry following the kidnapping told her the media would be very interested in her story, and encouraged her not to be afraid of interacting with them. He suggested writing down what she wanted to say ahead of time, succinctly, so that what was important to her would come across clearly. 

That advice has stood her in good stead over the years as she has been interviewed by a very wide range of major media. She is still surprised when she is asked to speak or write in all kinds of situations, remembering that Martin was the speaker in the family while they were together.

On one occasion, she accepted an invitation to speak only because it meant she’d get a free trip to a city a sibling lived in. When she was sent a list of previous speakers at the prestigious lecture series, she discovered the likes of Henry Kissinger and Mikhail Gorbachev. She went anyway.

Gracia has become very adept at presenting her message, combining a small-town folksiness with hard-earned wisdom.

New Tribes Mission

ag_NewTribesMissionThe Burnhams were sent to the Philippines by New Tribes Mission (NTM), and Gracia is still affiliated with the group, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

More than 3,000 NTM missionaries from about 30 nations serve in Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific. They minister particularly among unreached people groups; of the world’s 6,500 people groups, 2,500 are still unreached. New Tribes Mission of Canada helps local churches mobilize, equip and coordinate missionaries to these tribes.

NTM will have a booth (C10) at Missions Fest this year. 

To learn more about Gracia Burnham, go to her website or consider reading one of her books, In the Presence of My Enemies or To Fly Again.

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