Together, with her husband, Martin, Gracia had been held captive for more than a year by Islamic terrorists in the Philippines. Her story had been followed by the American media. It was a powerful, compelling story and a story of God’s grace and His very real presence in the midst of suffering.
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Getaway Takes a Wrong Turn
Guest: Gracia Burnham
From the series: In the Presence of My Enemies (Day 2 of 3)
Bob: Back in 2002, for more than 12 months, missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham were held hostage, having been kidnapped by an Islamic terrorist group.
Gracia: For the first few weeks, we were both chained together to a tree. Then they saw that I wasn't going to go anywhere without Martin, and they quit chaining me.
Bob: The Burnhams lived for months in the remote jungles of the Philippines, always under the watchful eye of their captors and always on the run.
Gracia: We never knew when the guns were going to start blaring—you know, they had found us again; and we would start running. Many times, we would lose everything in one of those gun battles because we weren't prepared every moment. When there are bullets whizzing over your heads, you don't think, "Oh, I have to get my brush, and I need to get my clothes that are drying on the bushes."
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, July 2nd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll talk today with Gracia Burnham and hear a dramatic, compelling story of her life in captivity. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. We’re spending some time this week revisiting a program that was originally recorded and first aired in 2003, as we had the opportunity to sit down with Gracia Burnham. She and her husband Martin had been in the news that year because they had both been kidnapped and held by Islamic terrorists in the Philippines for more than a year. That capture had ended with a rescue attempt. Gracia’s husband, Martin, was actually killed in that rescue attempt.
Gracia shared her story in a book she had written called In the Presence of My Enemies. Honestly, the story she shared was so powerful, it’s one of those programs that listeners have talked about for years since it was aired. We wanted you to hear the story again. So here is Part Two of our conversation from 2003 with Gracia Burnham.
[Previously Recorded Interview]
Dennis: Gracia Burnham has joined us here for a second day. She is the author of In the Presence of My Enemies. She and Martin served in the New Tribes Mission Ministry in the Philippines for more than 17 years. Gracia—welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Gracia: Thank you very much.
Dennis: When we left off on the story yesterday, you had decided to greet Martin to help him get over his jet lag at a nice, romantic island; but in the middle of the night, you were awakened by a terrorist group who kidnapped you and threw you on a boat, along with 20 others?
Gracia: Yes, there were 17 others—there were 20 of us.
Dennis: In a boat that was not that large.
Gracia: Yes, it was totally overloaded, which is typical for the Philippines, though. They overload everything.
Dennis: The boat ride lasted how long?
Gracia: All day long—sun-up to sundown. And then, they transferred us onto a fishing vessel that they had commandeered—which was bigger—but by the time you got 20 hostages—and I think there were about 20 Abu Sayyaf and 10 or 20 fishermen—that vessel was overloaded too. For the next three days, we were out across the ocean on that fishing vessel.
Bob: What did you and Martin talk about as you were on the boat? I mean, you had to be kind of trying to figure out: “What’s going to happen? How long is this going to go? How do we get out of this?”
Gracia: You know, we weren’t doing a whole lot of talking because we were trying to figure things out. We were trying to listen more than talk.
Dennis: You said that, on that boat, the hardest thing, however, were your three children—
Gracia: Yes, yes.
Dennis: —and the memory of what was being taken away from you, at that point.
Gracia: Yes. Right away, the words I'd spoken to my kids: "We'll be gone for one week," came back to me. I knew we weren't going to be gone for just one week. I knew it was—this was going to take a while. I felt so bad for them, and I started praying for them.
Bob: And did you think that the ordeal would end—did it typically end with a ransom being paid? Is that what had happened with the Europeans?
Gracia: Yes. It always ended with a ransom being paid.
Bob: And so, did you think, “That's what will happen—somebody will come up with the ransom”?
Gracia: Well, when they were going around the hostages—talking to each one, asking them, you know: “How much can your family pay for you?”—they got to Martin and me. They said: "We will treat you differently. We will ask for political concessions for you, and we will deal with you last." I kind of wish now that we had just said, "Well, you give us the phone; and we'll try to get a ransom together."
Gracia: We knew that New Tribes Mission would not pay a ransom. We never expected that because that would put all the missionaries in danger.
Bob: Yes, I want to ask you about that because, after you got back, there was an article that appeared in Christianity Today—.
Gracia: Oh, yes.
Bob: —just because some folks may have read that.
Bob: There was some concern that maybe your heart was that New Tribes should have paid a ransom.
Gracia: Yes, I don’t know how that happened.
We had a really great interview, but somehow what I meant to say never got communicated in Christianity Today. That article really broke my heart because, in that article, it basically said I had issues with New Tribes Mission; and if they had paid a ransom, Martin would still be alive; and Martin had died needlessly. I never said those things—that’s not my heart. The thing that bothered me most about the Christianity Today article is that I don’t feel like God got any glory from that article. If that doesn’t happen, we wasted a year in the jungle.
Gracia: That’s what hurt me most, I think.
Bob: So your heart was—New Tribes should not pay a ransom—
Gracia: No. I knew they wouldn’t.
Bob: —and it's appropriate not to—it puts other missionaries in jeopardy, as you said.
Bob: And so if they're not going to do that, you're there at your own peril.
Gracia: Oh, yes; and we knew that / we understood that.
Bob: It's what you'd signed up for at one level. Now, you never expected it would happen—it doesn't happen to most missionaries—but in the back of your mind, you always knew there is, at least, the possibility that “We could be in danger,”—and that was okay.
Gracia: Yes, for sure. Yes, that's part of the job.
Dennis: You landed on an island. That began, really, your jungle trek.
Dennis: I mean—on, and on, and on you ran from the Philippine Army.
Dennis: Explain to our listeners what the living conditions were like. I mean, it was as primitive as I've ever heard anyone describe it.
Gracia: Well, we basically had the clothes on our back. We would walk all day, trying to get to a safe area—"safe."
Now, most of the Abu Sayyaf guys had hammocks. When it got time to rest or time for the night, they would put their hammocks up between trees. For the first six months, Martin and I just slept on the jungle floor—wherever we happened to be. We didn't have possessions—we didn't have soap—we didn't have, really, anything.
Bob: Were you given time to bathe in a river / to shampoo your hair?—there was no shampoo.
Gracia: Well, every once in a while, they would let us take a bath.
Bob: Was that a weekly bath that maybe you got?
Gracia: Maybe weekly—not usually weekly—every several weeks. I remember—once, Martin went six weeks without a bath.
Dennis: The things you treasured were what I found interesting—I mean, a bar of soap/ a toothbrush—
Gracia: —a toothbrush, a brush for my hair / a comb—those were wonderful things to have.
Bob: And were you wearing the same pair of shorts / same t-shirt that you had put on the night you were captured? How long did you wear that?
Gracia: Well, pretty much that's what I wore for weeks and weeks. I should explain that our clothes would come and go. You know, what you had on your body is what you had. We never knew when the guns were going to start blaring—you know, they had found us again—and we would start running. When the bullets start whizzing—
Dennis: —and when you say, "they had found you again," we're talking again about the Filipino Army. They were in pursuit of this terrorist group, trying to catch them, and free you all.
Gracia: Yes. And we never knew when another "encounter"—they called it—was going to start. Many times we would lose everything in one of those gun battles because we weren't prepared every moment. When there are bullets whizzing over your heads, you don't think, "Oh, I have to get my brush—
Bob: "I need to pack now." [Laughter]
Gracia: Yes; "I need to get my brush, and I need to get my clothes that are drying on the bushes." So, our belongings would come and they would go.
Dennis: Many times, Martin would sleep chained or tied to a tree.
Gracia: He was always chained to a tree. They had handcuffs for him. At night, they would put a chain through the handcuffs and chain him to a tree.
Dennis: But not you?
Gracia: Well, for the first few weeks, we were both chained together to a tree. And then they saw that I wasn't going to go anywhere without Martin, and they quit chaining me.
Bob: I'm guessing that sleeping with handcuffs on, chained to a tree, is not your preferred method—not the most comfortable way to try and sleep.
Gracia: Oh, no; and neither is the jungle floor—you know, we could always find the root if there was a root on the ground—we would find it right where our ribs were. It's like we could never find a flat place—there was always something poking us.
Dennis: Were you covered with mosquito bites?
Gracia: Oh, yes. Oh, for sure.
Dennis: I think of the Philippines—I mean, did they just buzz you all night long?
Gracia: Yes, they did. We had, for most of our time, what we called malongs. They are big, long pieces of material that have been sewn up the middle to make a tube.
Dennis: Kind of like a sleeping bag?
Gracia: Kind of—just one-ply—one piece of material.
Gracia: And that was our blanket. We would just cover as much of us as we could with those malongs to keep the mosquitoes off; but it is also the tropics—and you just start sweating in there. You know, the sweat just starts dripping. So, you can choose to have mosquitoes in your ears and all around, biting you; or you can choose to be sweaty and hot.
Dennis: And it would rain too.
Gracia: Yes, many times we walked and sat in the rain, and we would just be soggy until we drip-dried.
Bob: Did your captors feed you?
Gracia: They fed us when they had food. There was never enough food. When we first started out, there were about 120 Abu Sayyaf; and that's a lot of people to feed.
Gracia: That's a lot of sacks of rice.
Bob: So, you would go sometimes days without anything to eat?
Gracia: Yes; yes, we would.
Bob: Gracia, there had to be, in the midst of this—nights, or days, or times when you are physically exhausted, you are starving, you are covered with mosquito bites—and you are crying out and going, "Lord, I cannot survive this."
Gracia: Yes, I said that a lot. And the crying out—I cried a lot. You know, the Abu Sayyaf didn't even like to see that. They hated to see me sitting around crying, but I did it a lot.
Dennis: Were they cruel to you?
Gracia: Yes; I don't know how you define cruelty. On one hand, they were very kind; and if they ate, we ate. But I remember—like, one instance, my reaction to the stress, and the gun battles, and the living conditions was stomach trouble and diarrhea—you know, I always had problems.
One night, I knew I was going to have to go into the forest in the night because I had diarrhea. I told the guy, as he was chaining me: "Could I just be free tonight? I won't go anywhere. I'll be here in the morning." They refused, and they chained me anyway. I had to go to the bathroom in the night—I thought, “What do I do?” I called my guard, who had the key—who could let me free—he wouldn’t let me free.
To me, that was cruel. They could have let me go to the bathroom.
Bob: Their hope with you and with the other hostages was that someone would step forward and pay a ransom. Was that happening? Were there hostages being set free because ransoms were being paid?
Gracia: Yes. One by one, the hostages were set free when their families came through with a payment. As time went on, we saw that these political concessions they wanted were not going to happen for us.
Gracia: And it got to be where they wanted a ransom.
Bob: How soon was the earliest hostage set free? Was it a month into the ordeal—do you remember?
Gracia: No; one couple was released like less than a week into our captivity.
Gracia: And it took about another week for a couple more / and another week for a couple more—then it was several months.
Bob: How long before it was just you and Martin?
Gracia: Six/seven months. Actually, it wasn't just me and Martin—it was me, and Martin, and Ediborah Yap, a Filipina nurse, who had been taken with us, until the end.
Dennis: Even in the midst of the cruelty / the suffering, there were moments of brilliant sunshine. It came one day in the form of some letters from your children.
Gracia: Yes. Four times during our captivity, mail came into camp in the jungle. How did that happen?—I have no idea.
Bob: The Filipino government can't get in and rescue you, but they can get the mail through—alright.
Gracia: But mail did come through. That was so neat, and we always loved those letters. We would read them over, and over, and over.
Dennis: Well, I want you to read Jeff's letter to you guys—
Dennis: —because I want our listeners to hear this letter.
I want you to explain the conditions in which you were reading it.
Gracia: Okay. The night before, we had been in a gun battle that had lasted all day. We had kind of been trapped by the military in a field. Each way we would go, new gunfire would erupt; and then, under the darkness of night, we snuck out of there and walked all night. Every time we were stopping for a rest, I would go to the bathroom. I took my backpack off once to go to the bathroom. When I came back, the line was starting to move already. I just got in line behind Martin, and then I realized I'd left my backpack behind. I turned around to get it—I could see it. There was a new guard with the group, and he pointed his weapon at me. He said, "No, you go." I said, "My backpack—it's right there," and he wouldn't let me get it.
I had just lost everything—you know, I had a sheet, I had toothpaste, and I had some underwear. I had just lost everything, and I was heartbroken. I said to Martin: "Oh, Martin, how can you ever forgive me? I've lost everything." And Martin said, "I forgive you, and now you need to forgive yourself." So, that night—just the heaviness of having lost everything—the next morning we got to a Muslim village. They cooked for us and carried off the wounded for us. As we were sitting there, like, a backpack came into camp with stuff for us. Inside were letters from our children, and every single thing that I had lost the day before was replaced. I couldn't believe it—God just did that for me.
Inside were letters from the kids. Jeff—he was 13 at this time.
His letter reads: "Hey, my cool parents. We are having fun here with Grandma and Grandpa and all our cousins. Aunt Felicia took us to rent movies just now. It was great. I didn't really enjoy the movie we got, but that's okay. I just wanted to say hi and that I'm looking forward to seeing you again. I'm praying for you. Bye, Jeff (the cool one)." [Laughter]
But the letter I love is Zachary's—Zach was 10. He said: "Dear Mom and Dad, how are you? I am fine. We went to Walmart® today. It is fun here. At Mega Mall, we bought two computer games. I will write you back. Love, Zach." “I will write you back,”—[Laughter]—we laughed and laughed. We said: "No! Don't write us back. We're going to be out of here—don't write us back."
Dennis: I read those, and I thought how surreal that must have been—to be in the jungle and be hearing about shopping at Walmart.
Gracia: Yes, it gave us a little glimpse into our children's lives.
Bob: Video rentals and computer games.
Gracia: Yes, I love it.
Bob: Did it also, though, not tear your heart out?
Gracia: Oh, yes. Yes, but—
Bob: —“they're safe”?
Gracia: —but we knew they were fine, and we knew life was normal for them. It felt so good.
Bob: But you still gotta get out of there.
Gracia: I know.
Dennis: I mean—a mother's heart, at that point—that's what, as I read your story here, I just, again, pictured Barbara and how her heart would want to be—“be with my kids / to be with my children—to be a mom—to be a family again.”
Gracia: Yes; yes.
Dennis: And yet, that had been taken away from you.
Bob: And to think, again, Dennis, that this wasn't something that happened because Martin and Gracia were on a vacation—but they were in service for Christ.
Bob: This was the reason for the ordeal—because they were faithful followers of Jesus Christ and willing to—even when they went to the field for the first time—to say, “The world behind me, the cross before me—
Bob: —you know, “no turning back.”
Dennis: And I think it's at these points we need to re-read what it means to be a disciple. Jesus said, “If they hated Me, they'll hate you” [John 15:18]. If you're a Christ-follower, then you should expect persecution / you should expect trials and difficulties. Yet, it's in these moments that the Scripture comes back to remind us of the truth: "Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me,” [John 14:1]—Jesus said.
Bob: I think about, Gracia—you reading stories about Amy Carmichael as you were growing up.
Bob: And I think about the kids, who are growing up today—they're going to be reading this story.
Bob: Yes, Mom and Dad ought to be reading it to them.
Gracia: How cool! What a good thought!
Dennis: Oh, it's happening. I'm going to tell you—it's going to happen because there needs to be another generation of missionaries. And I believe, Gracia—someday, there will be a young lady who will tell of reading your story—
Dennis: —and having had God touch her life profoundly to give her the courage and the faith to step out. In fact, I don't believe there will be one lady—I believe there will be many men and women who have drunk deeply from your life, and Martin's, and your courage and your faith. That's really what we wanted to do, here today, on FamilyLife Today—is to challenge families to raise the next generation of missionaries. We have a shortage of missionaries around the world, and we have the greatest news that's ever been proclaimed. If there has ever been a time when it needs to be proclaimed, it's today.
Dennis: And I think we just need to be giving our children a vision and a heart for the Great Commission.
Bob: Yes, and this is a book that can be a tool to help do that. In fact, this is a book that families may want to read together, a chapter at a time, at the dinner table or on vacation this summer. The book is called In the Presence of My Enemies.
In the ten years since all of this happened, Gracia has had the opportunity to do a revised and updated version of the book that includes information about a trip back to the Philippines—a secret trip that’s all in the new version of the book In the Presence of My Enemies.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com if you’d like to request a copy. Click the link in the upper left-hand corner of our website that says, “GO DEEPER.” You’ll see a copy of Gracia Burnham’s book, In the Presence of My Enemies. Again, the website is: FamilyLifeToday.com. If you would prefer to order the book by phone, our toll-free number is 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.” That’s 1-800-358-6329.
You know, I want to add a quick word here, where I thank the folks who made today’s program possible—those of you who are supporters of the ministry of FamilyLife Today—whether it’s as Legacy Partners, who give each month, or as folks who, from time to time, will make a donation in support of the work we’re doing, here at FamilyLife.
We’re grateful anytime you choose to invest in this ministry. Our goal is to provide practical biblical help for your marriage and your family every day—on this program; on our website; through the resources that we’re creating, here at FamilyLife; through the events we host. We’re joined in that mission by those of you who support this ministry and help cover the cost of, well, for example, producing and syndicating this daily radio program and keeping it on the air in your community.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear about the eventual rescue attempt that was made. After 12 months of captivity, there was an attack on the rebels in an attempt to free the hostages. We’ll hear that story from the perspective of one of those hostages, Gracia Burnham, on tomorrow’s program. I hope you can join us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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