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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Guest: Gracia Burnham
From the series: In the Presence of My Enemies (Day 3 of 3)
Bob: Back in 2002, there was a story that made international news—the story of missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, who had been taken hostage by Islamic terrorists in the Philippines. They were being held primarily for money—the terrorists wanted a ransom. Others, who had been taken captive with them, had ultimately been freed because that ransom had been paid. Here is Gracia Burnham.
Gracia: My family arranged a ransom. Some of the money came into camp, and there was so much excitement. The leaders of the group called us over, and Martin and I sat down beside them. They said, "There’s a ransom been paid for you, but we've decided that it's not enough." They said, "We're going to ask for more." I begged them not to do that—I told them: "This is not going to end well. Please don't do this."
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, July 3rd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Gracia Burnham had no idea how prophetic her words to her captors were. We'll hear today about the concluding days of her captivity. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Friday edition. Back in 2002/2003, many of us were praying for a husband and wife who had been captured by Islamic militants. They were being held for ransom somewhere in the Philippines. We had heard about this capture—we were praying for Martin and Gracia Burnham.
And then the news came that there had been a rescue attempt.
I remember it was in USA Today—it made national news—as U.S. forces, together with Philippine forces, attempted to rescue the hostages being held by these Islamic militants. It was not long after that rescue attempt that we had the opportunity to sit down with Gracia Burnham, who had shared the story of her captivity and the rescue in the book she’d written called In the Presence of My Enemies. That conversation is just as compelling, today, as it was back when it just happened, more than a decade ago. This week, we have been listening back to our interview as Gracia Burnham shared her story of the capture and the rescue attempt that happened back in 2003.
[Previously Recorded Interview]
Dennis: Gracia, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Gracia: Thank you very much.
Dennis: She has written a book called In the Presence of My Enemies. Gracia, I remember that news report Bob’s talking about.
In fact, I can still remember where I was standing in my kitchen, looking at you on TV, hearing you plead for someone to pay the ransom for you to get out. I remember weeping with you—I thought, "Here is a sister in Christ, and a brother." You know, we had no idea the conditions you were living under, obviously.
Bob: You had been taken captive by a terrorist group in the Philippines—a group with ties to al-Qaeda. They had captured you, along with 17 other people for the purpose of funding their operation. This is kind of their annual fundraising drive—is to take hostages and get the payoff. In your case, there wasn't going to be a payoff. Tell us about the videotape that Dennis saw. What were the conditions that led to that being shown on television?
Gracia: Oh my. Well, one morning, out of the clear blue, we were in a camp. It must not have been too far from civilization because there had been people come in and out of camp—just civilians—bringing notes and stuff like that. They came to us one morning and said: "There is a television reporter here to interview you. This is your chance to make a plea.” Then Abu Sabaya—one of the head guys—turned to me and said, "Gracia, if you could cry or something—that would help." I looked at him and I said, "Sabaya, how many days of this captivity have you not seen me crying?" [Laughter] And he said, "Oh, yes, that's going to be no problem for you."
Bob: You'd been captive now for six, seven, eight months?
Gracia: Yes, seven months, I think.
Bob: All the other hostages, with the exception of one other woman—
Gracia: —they were gone.
Bob: So it was you, and Martin, and this other woman. The funding sources had dried up. This reporter was there to try to help them finish up their fund drive, basically.
Gracia: Yes, and we were out of money. A lot of the other leaders had gotten tired of the whole thing and gone home—and taken the money with them—so, we were on our own. We were depending on supporters of the Abu Sayyaf in different villages to feed us. We were going from farm to farm, eating unripe fruit—just whatever we could find.
Bob: It’s hard to imagine a scenario where a television reporter can come in and videotape something; and yet the Filipino government, which had been trying to affect a rescue, couldn’t come in and rescue you guys.
Gracia: That is hard to understand, except when you’ve been in the jungle. You can be several hundred feet from something and not see it for the foliage and everything. I remember—one day, we could hear the military over on the next ridge; but there was no way they could see us or we could see them.
It’s just dense jungle—so it’s not that difficult—maybe if their intelligence had been a bit better, they could have found us—but just by sight, trying to find us the way they were finding us, it was going to be a chance thing.
Dennis: You mentioned earlier that in order to feed the number of captives, along with your captors, it took a lot of food. They actually killed civilians to be able to provide food for you.
Gracia: Yes. There was one day they had us rest in this—kind of a logging area. A group of guys went off. As the day wore on and we sat there, I started to wonder. Then I heard gunfire not very far away. This group came back, and all of them were carrying food—you know, sacks of rice, and treats, and stuff.
As we got out of there, we started to hear the story—they had waited by the road until a jeepney came along that had just been to the marketplace. They were going to get the food from the jeepney, but someone had a gun on the jeepney and had pointed the gun. They didn’t use rifles to shoot that guy—they used machine guns—and just mowed everybody down. It was a massacre.
Dennis: It killed like eight civilians.
Gracia: Yes. It ended up that some of those civilians—they were Muslims, and some of them were relatives of these guys who had killed them—but you know, they just kind of shrugged their shoulders and said, “That was their destiny.”
That was always their answer if they killed someone else—“It was their destiny,”— but if anyone ever killed a Muslim, that was an atrocity. I never quite understood how—
Bob: Yes, how one works one way—
Gracia: Yes, one’s an atrocity and one’s a destiny.
Bob: What were you and Martin thinking, at this point, would be the end game? I mean—here it's been weeks now—did you figure: “These guys are going to get tired and go home, and we're going to just be released”? What did you think?
Gracia: You know, by then, we didn't know what to think—it had gone on for so long. We just kept asking the Lord to deliver us. It seemed like God would answer every prayer but for us to go home. You know, there would be days we would say, "God, could You just do something really special for us to show us that You still love us?" Something freaky would happen—like a Coke would come into camp. The other guys wouldn't take it—they'd give it to us—you know, just a gift from God. That happened so many times.
One day, I told Martin, "Okay, I'm going to start praying for a hamburger because that means, if I get a hamburger, I'm outta here." And Martin would look at me, with a twinkle in his eye, and say, "Have you prayed for your hamburger today?"
You know, right about Easter time, a ransom was paid for us. My family arranged a ransom, and some of the money came into camp. There was so much excitement, and the leaders of the group called us over. Martin and I sat down beside them; and they said, "There is a ransom been paid for you, but we've decided that it's not enough." I begged them not to do that. They said, "We're going to ask for more." I told them: "This is not going to end well. Please don't do this." But they hardened their hearts—and they were greedy and asked for more money—but there was money then.
They hired a fishing vessel to get us off the island we’d been on—Basilan, which by this time, was overrun with soldiers. We were running all the time. They took us to another island. For less than 24 hours, we were in a little fishing village near a city. Someone went into the city to their version of McDonald's®—Jollibee® they called it—and brought Martin and me a hamburger, French fries, and a Coke. It's like God took a baseball bat and hit me over the head and said: "Can't I provide a hamburger for you in the jungle? Couldn't I get you out of here if I wanted to get you out of here?"
I think it's then that Martin and I started thinking neither of us was going to get out of the jungle. Our prayers started to change. Our prayer—of course, we always asked God to get us out of there—but our prayers were more focused on, "Lord, would You please teach us what You have to teach us, right now, and help us to be good learners so You can get some glory?" He started to do it—I know it was Him because I had tried and couldn’t bring that up, but the Lord put that in me.
Dennis: You didn't have a Bible.
Dennis: There was no access to the Scripture.
Gracia: There was nothing—it was what we had in our hearts—and we realized how little we knew.
Dennis: All of us have experienced, Gracia, the—well, a prayer that goes unanswered; or a prayer where God says, "No"; or he says, "Wait." As I was reading your book, I kept thinking, "What must she have been thinking as this ordeal continued on, and on, and on?"
And you prayed—you prayed on the boat, you prayed on the island, you prayed on the second island / you were being chased. What keeps a person from losing hope in those circumstances?
Gracia: I don't know—I remember one of my hardest days—we had prayed with the young girls that weren't married because, one by one, the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf—they would "sabaya" them—that's the word they used. Sabaya means you become their booty of war. One guy would pick one girl, and she would have to live with him—you know, share his hammock and sleep with him. We would pray with these girls, and we would beg God to not let that happen. One by one, that happened. I thought, "How can this be God's plan for these girls?" And you know what? I guess I don't have any answers.
I know some things from my experience [emotion in voice]—I know that God will not test you above what you are able. He will, with the testing, make a way to escape, that you can bear it [1 Cor. 10:13]. I chose to believe that God was not going to bring anything our way that we could not bear. The other thing I decided was true is that God is good. I may not feel, right now—like God is good—but He is [Ps. 100:5]. My feelings don't matter. I don't have a lot of answers about unanswered prayer. You know, I haven't become a real theological person through this; but I have become a trusting person—and I'm clinging to what's true.
Dennis: But the thing I don't want our listeners to miss—you did not lose hope. You may have had a lot of prayers that seemingly went unanswered, or the door was slammed shut, but you never stopped praying.
Gracia: No, that's all we had to cling to—was our faith in God—we had nothing else. When you have nothing, you have nothing—but when you have the Lord, you have everything, on the other hand—He was our everything.
Bob: Take us to the final night.
Gracia: Yes; we had gone nine days without food. I didn't know you could go nine days without food—I thought you go three days, and then you drop dead—but you don't. We had salt, and we had water. The guys knew which leaves we could—
Bob: You had to weigh 80 pounds?
Gracia: Yes, I definitely didn't have much fat on my body—I'll tell you that. We were skin and bones.
We were looking for the elusive village—the village where there was—the second ransom was there. They were going to turn us over to civilians, and this was all going to be over; but we were actually kind of lost. Our guide didn't exactly know where we were. We came to some logging roads—in that area of the Philippines, they plow out these roads so these big vehicles can drag logs out of the mountains.
One night, we were going to cross a logging road to get to this village that we thought was over there. I said to my guard: “Could you go tell them not to cross this road? I don’t have a good feeling about this. Someone’s going to see our tracks and follow us.” Of course, they didn’t pay any attention to me. As the sun went down, and no one could see us, we crossed the road—hiked all night.
There were three kinds of rules with this war: one was we never fought in the rain. We never fought after dark; and they never pursued us—we would have our gun battle—then we would go our way, and they would go theirs.
Well, it clouded up to rain that day. We put our hammocks up, and we put our little plastic shelters over the hammocks to keep the rain off. We laid down for a rest. We didn't know that that morning they'd seen our footprints and had been following us all day. The soldiers came over the hill and opened fire on our camp.
There was no selective gunfire—there never had been before. This was gun battle number 17. I knew what to do right away—I dropped—but even before I got to the ground, I'd been shot in the leg. There was enough rain already that I kind of just slid down the hill and came to rest beside Martin.
I looked over at him, and he was bleeding from his chest. I knew from experience that leg wounds heal, but chest wounds don't.
Dennis: You didn't have any words with him, then?
Gracia: No, I didn't say anything to him.
Bob: The two of you had had a conversation—what?—the night before? —as you'd gone to sleep?
Gracia: No, just minutes before. When we were sitting down in our hammock to have our rest, Martin had said to me: "Gracia, I don't know why this has happened to us; but Psalm 100 has been just running through my head all day, especially the verse that says, 'Serve the Lord with gladness.'" He said, "This may not seem like serving the Lord, but let's just choose to serve Him with gladness." Those are the last words he ever said.
Well, we prayed together and lay down.
Well, when I didn't hear the languages of the Abu Sayyaf coming from the river, I started moving my hands just very slowly so someone would know I was alive. I didn't want them to be startled and shoot me. Some soldiers saw me right away and came down the hill and started dragging me up to the ridge. As they drug me up the hill, I looked back at Martin. He was white, and that's when I knew he was dead; but, you know, the Lord gave me real grace right then [emotion in voice]. We had been praying that we would get out of there. To be quite honest, we didn't care how anymore—we had just had it.
Right in that moment, I thought: "This is God's answer. Martin is with Him, and they're going to take care of me." I just had a real peace. You know what? That peace has never left me.
I have a real peace in my heart that this is God's plan—and it is not how I would have planned it. I would never have had this hostage-thing happen in the first place. I certainly wouldn't have had it go on for a year, and I certainly wouldn't have chosen Martin to die; but you know what? God is God. I'm not the one that does the choosing—He is the One that does the choosing. I trust Him, and I trust that He is good.
Dennis: Gracia, you had one last assignment, however, that would be difficult. That was the assignment of sharing with your children in the Embassy.
Gracia: Yes, they fixed up my leg and flew me to Manila. I was in the Embassy, and I wanted my children to hear from me what had happened to their dad. I didn't want them to turn on the TV and see the media version. I called the kids, and they had a speakerphone. I just told them the story I had told you. I wondered how they would take that. You know, I could hear the sniffling on the other end, and I could tell they were crying; but right away, I just sensed that God took care of my kids too.
After I was done talking about Martin, they started asking me questions: "Well, how are you?" I told them I was fine, and everybody was being so kind to me.
And then my daughter said: "Mom, are you going to have a nervous breakdown? Because everybody here thinks you are." I said: "Oh, honey, I had my nervous breakdowns in the jungle. I am through with those, and things are going to be fine now." And then she said, "Are you going to make us move from here?"
You know, it's like the kids were already thinking through how life was going to be, and we had a good conversation. We have had a lot of good conversations, and it's like the Lord is just upholding my children. You know, I think God brought me home for my kids. I don’t think God brought me home to do a book tour and to have some great message. I think God brought me home to raise some godly children, and that’s my goal. If—I don’t care what my children do—if they are godly, and they are following the Lord, then oh my—what more could you ask?
Dennis: That’s right, and we can say we have not lived in vain nor fought in vain.
Gracia: Yes, isn’t that great?
Dennis: Well, Gracia, I want to thank you for being on FamilyLife Today. I want to thank you for sharing your life, not only in this book, but with us over the past couple of days. I have the feeling you have helped some moms and dads, some husbands and wives, and single people. I think they’ve maybe drunk from a spiritual fire hydrant, Bob. [Laughter]
Bob: I’m just thinking: “Problems? I’ve got no problems!”
Dennis: “I haven’t got any problems!” I have one last question for you, though, before we let you go.
Bob: Let me interrupt you long enough to let our listeners know how they can get a copy of Gracia’s book before you ask your last question. The book that Gracia has written is called In The Presence of My Enemies. This was a New York Times best-seller when it came out. We have the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order from us when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to request the book.
Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. When you get there, click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that says, “GO DEEPER.” You’ll see Gracia’s book there. Or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.”
[Previously Recorded Interview]
Dennis: Well, I'm grateful you've shared with our listeners how you can get a copy of this book. I do hope they will read In the Presence of My Enemies to their children. I think we need to raise a generation of young people who have God's heart for the world.
I promised you, Gracia, I had one last question for you: “Will you go back?”
Gracia: Well, I would love to go back, and the kids would love to go back; but we're New Tribes Mission missionaries. I was a good pilot's wife, and there is no pilot anymore. I think my ministry—I would want to be in a tribe somewhere, which would mean learning a new language / learning a new culture. So, I would love to go back.
If God really laid it on our hearts, we would be back there in a minute—the children were born there. When they had to pack their bag that day and get out of the Philippines, they were ripped from their home; and they would love to go back.
Dennis: Well, Gracia Burnham, you may have cried your way through the jungle, as you wrote about in your book, and felt like you had your nervous breakdown in the jungle, but you are exactly who I thought you would be. As I told Bob—I said, "I believe she is one gritty warrior for Christ." You are a warrior for Christ, and I want to thank you for being on FamilyLife Today.
Gracia: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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