Martin and Gracia Burnham were missionaries in the Philippines for 16 years until a weekend getaway turned into an international news story. The Burnhams, along with a few others, were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf terrorists and whisked into the jungle where they would spend the next 376 days on the run from the Filipino military.
The Burnhams’ three children were rushed back to grandparents in Kansas for their safety. Despite repeated requests, advocacy and even a ransom payment, the Abu Sayyaf refused to release the couple. On June 7, 2002, the 17th and final gun battle the Burnhams would experience began. When the guns finally stopped, Gracia was freed, but Martin had been killed.
Gracia returned home to Kansas and was reunited with her children. Over 2,500 people, including two congressmen and the Philippines ambassador, attended Martin’s funeral. In the years since her captivity, Gracia has spoken extensively about her ordeal and wrote two books: “In the Presence of My Enemies” and “To Fly Again.”
1. Tell us about your time in the Philippines before being captured.
Martin and I had been in the Philippines for 16 years. Martin was a jungle pilot for New Tribes Mission, now Ethnos360. Our missions agency works with people in hard-to-reach places — often where no roads go. For a missionary family to access these remote places would take days of hiking with many river crossings. We have learned over the years that aviation can keep families supplied and allow tribal missionaries to spend their energy in the village rather than in getting there.
We loved our ministry! Martin was born to fly in the jungle. He could put a loaded Cessna down on a short jungle strip and get it stopped in the next few hundred feet, and by God’s grace did that mishap-free for many years. We worked as a family to run the flight program, delivering people and supplies and doing medical evacuations and relief flying into some of the most primitive places in the world. Our three children were born in the Philippines.
Then came our year of captivity. Martin had to go to a southern island to fly, so I cleared my schedule and left our children with our neighbors, intending to be gone for one week. While we were on Palawan our anniversary rolled around, so we went to the beach. And that started that awful year.
2. What has happened in your story since you returned home and wrote your first book?
I really thought that after I got home, I would tell my story for a few months and do a few interviews, and then interest in our story would all go away. Well, that didn’t happen! Twenty years later, I’m still traveling and speaking. There is always someone in the crowd who prayed for me and is so happy that I am there — or is facing some traumatic hardship and just needs to hear a word of hope.
The really neat thing is that, through an American couple who does prison ministry in the Philippines, I have found some of the guys who held me hostage. About 23 of them are in a maximum-security prison for the rest of their lives. It’s a long story, but I have been able to communicate with some of them, and we have done projects in the prison and figured out ways to get the gospel in to them. So far, I hear that four of them have come to know the Lord. Had we known that any of them would become believers in Jesus because of our experience, the days would have been easier to bear during that long year! God can take any situation and make it turn out well. He promised that “all things work together for good to those who love God.” That is absolutely true.
God put forgiveness in my heart for those guys during our year of captivity. It was an incredible thing. God did it — ‘cause I asked Him to. Scripture says that God has started a good work in us and He will perfect it. It’s hard to forgive someone who hurts you over and over and over. The natural thing for us to feel towards them is hatred — wanting revenge, wishing them dead, or whatever. But those of us who know the Lord have the Holy Spirit living in us, so we don’t have to have the natural, sinful response. When I saw my natural self rearing its ugly head over and over, I just asked God to put His love, joy, peace and forgiveness in my heart. And He did it! He is awesome that way.
Our kids were 13, 11, and 10 when we were taken hostage. They learned a lot of important life lessons going through this as well. They’re grown now, and I have seven grandchildren. My oldest, Jeff, is a pilot like his dad was. My daughter, Mindy, is married to a guy who grew up on the mission field in Paraguay. They are in ministry in Wichita. My youngest, Zachary, works in Kansas City. So thankful for these kids. They are what kept me going when I got home from that ordeal.
3. While you were in the jungle, countless churches, families and schools were praying for your safe release. Yet Martin didn’t return home. How have you wrestled through trusting God when your life circumstances aren’t what you hoped for?
We love to tell God what to do. We have a wonderful plan for our lives that doesn’t involve hardship and pain. I love how Christ sits at the right hand of God praying for us. We pray as we think we ought, but sometimes we don’t even know how to pray. But Jesus — He knows how to pray! And he prays for us. So when we get “no” for an answer to a fervent prayer, we know that God hasn’t made a mistake and that He is working despite everything. And as we see His hand in our lives and we learn to trust Him more, we grow. I watched everyone in our family go through that struggle when our prayers weren’t answered the way we wanted them to be. If we know the answer — if we can see how things are supposed to be — it wouldn’t be faith. We walk by faith in a faithful God.
4. What advice would you share about seeking God’s leading? How did you and Martin know you were called to be missionaries?
I feel like God called me to Martin. He didn’t necessarily call me to missions. I was convinced that I was supposed to marry Martin, and I would have been happy with whatever God called him to do.
As far as the leading of God goes, you can’t be led if you don’t follow the leader. It’s not so important what you do in five years when you are ready to follow God. It is important what you do today. You follow God today. And then you follow Him the next day, and suddenly five years down the road, you will look back and see how God led you as you took baby steps in walking with Him.
This generation often talks about “following your dreams,” “if you can dream it, you can do it,” and “do what you are passionate about.” That sounds good, but in reality what is important is not our dreams. Not at all. What is important is God’s glory. What is important is figuring out what God is passionate about and fitting in to His will for your life.
I hear all the time, “I thought God wanted me to be a missionary, but it just never happened because …” Following God is never going to just “happen.” You will have to deliberately give up your will and follow God’s will. You might have a “good” life following your dreams and your passions, because God is good and loves to bless His children. But if you really want to be a good disciple, you deny yourself. You take up your cross (not your dream) and you follow God no matter the cost. Following God and being a good disciple of His is going to be costly. You will get scars. But you will also one day hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
5. You and Martin were married for 19 years. What are some of the challenges you face being single after so many years of marriage? From this perspective, what encouragement or advice would you offer to singles?
Being single is not always fun. But there could be much worse things than being single — like living with someone who isn’t the right one for the rest of your life. Or deciding that you aren’t going to live anymore with the one you married. Life isn’t about happiness; it’s about obedience. When I find myself lonely and wishing that things are different, I don’t pray for a husband — ‘cause I think if I really needed one, God would give me one. I don’t know what is best for me. God does. So when I am lonely, I pray, “Lord, I want your will. Your will be done. Whatever that is.” If His will means that I am lonely sometimes, that’s OK with me.
Copyright 2021 Lauren Dunn. All rights reserved.