2016-07-27
On May 27, 2001, Gracia Burnham and her husband Martin were vacationing at a resort in the Philippines when they and 18 others were kidnapped by the Muslim terrorists Abu Sayyaf. Christian missionaries, the Burnhams and their three children had long experience in the country, but nothing prepared the two for the indescribable suffering of the year that followed. Moving constantly, eating little and falling sick often, they dreaded beheading by their captors and the random strikes of their would-be rescuers.

On June 7, 2002, Martin was fatally shot during a raid by the Philippine army. Gracia, wounded in the leg, was freed. In "In the Presence of My Enemies" (Tyndale), Burnham details what happened, but admits she little remembers what she felt during her captivity: "My job was rather to put one foot in front of the other, to stay alive one more day." In this Beliefnet interview, Burnham tells of her ongoing effort to come to terms with her hellish year.


From the first pictures we saw of you on your return, you've been smiling and upbeat.
Well, I was thrilled to be out of the jungle. We'd started praying that we'd get out of there even if it meant death. We were sick of the whole situation.

I still am happy. Things can go really wrong at home, the kids can be in a bad mood, but I just find myself being really, really happy. Even at Martin's funeral, I was just so happy to be amongst friends, to be home. It's hard to explain. I know if Martin had come home without me, he'd be the same.

There's been some political questions about whether Christian missionaries should go to the Middle East or other Muslim areas. When you went to Mindanao, which has a good number of Muslims, how did you feel about that?
Certain areas are more Muslim than others, and we stayed away from those regions. I'm not saying that it's wrong to go to a Muslim country. If that's what God leads you to do, you do it. But God hadn't led us to a Muslim area.

You weren't targeted because you were missionaries?
No, and some people are calling Martin a martyr. That's a nice thing, but I don't think that's true. We were just at the wrong resort at the wrong time.

How did your captors respond when they found out who you were?
I thought they'd be upset. [Before being kidnapped ] we were working with people who worship the spirits, and try to appease the spirits of their dead ancestors. When Abu Sayyaf found out we were working with these people who don't really believe anything, that was a plus for us.

We kind of agreed that we believe in the same God. Martin and I thought that one through long and hard. Is the God we're praying to the same one they're praying to? We started talking with them about Allah and they said, Allah made everything, He owns everything. He's going to be the one that judges. He hates sin. He can do anything. He's all powerful, all present. He sees everything. As we went through these attributes of Allah, we saw that that's the God we worship too, the Almighty Being. We just call him something different.

There was one major difference. I was talking to Solaiman [one of her captors] one day, and I said,"Does your God love you? Is one of your names for God love?" He thought through all the names for God and he said, "No, God doesn't love us. That's not one of the attritbutes of our God." I would re-teach [about divine love] to them.

But you did come to the conclusion that Allah is the same as the Christian God?
That is my conclusion. I've never studied this, and some people might be appalled to hear me say that. My only expertise is that I lived for a year with these guys. I think they are trying to please their God. And I didn't hear a whole lot about their God that doesn't agree with ours.

It seems from your book that you developed a human relationship with some of your captors.
There was one guy who just clicked with Martin. I could tell they thought a lot of each other. The other thing is, Martin and I like people, and we got to know them as people. Everybody's needy and those guys had a lot of needs.

Are there any happy memories of captivity?
One night, we were in a kind of safe place, and we hostages were in a little hut. Normally, we tried to be quiet and behave, but we just started singing--Carpenters songs, Beatles songs, singing at the top of our lungs. The festive mood spread, and even the Abu Sayyaf guys were on the porch, sitting and talking. I'd say that was a pretty happy memory.

How have you set about recovering? Has any religious habit been especially useful?
I haven't made a conscious effort to recover. I guess I've made a conscious effort to stay close to the Lord. Because, to be quite honest, I felt so close to the Lord in the jungle. If I needed a drink, I would ask the Lord for a drink. If I needed something to eat, I would ask God for something to eat. Every little thing I needed, I would ask God. Here in America, if I need somethink to drink, I go to the tap and get it.

I remember saying to Martin that hardly any of those guys had read the Qur'an. I said, if I was basing my eternal destiny on something, I would read the holy book. Martin said to me, "How long has it been since you read the Bible all the way through?" And it's been years. I promised myself that when I got out of the jungle I would read the Bible all the way through. That's what I need to do--make sure I know what the Scripture says, and know what I'm basing my faith on.

Do you think the Lord provided for you?
I think our captivity could have been a lot worse. I was never tortured, I was never molested. They never beat Martin. We didn't have a lot to eat, but it seems to me God took care of us. I think this world is a mess, and if there's anything good in the world it's from God. I saw a lot of good things he did for us in the midst of a horrible situation.

And you know what? I think people in America get really good things from God all the time, every day, and we don't stop to think, "That great meal was from God." We tend to think, "I've got this great job and I'm making money so I can eat." We forget that God's the source of everything good.

Do you think God put you in that position?
Yeah, I guess I do. It's a stupid thing to say, but I think God wanted us there for a reason. I never would have chosen that, and I'm not sure I agree that we should have had to go through that. But I think God had us there for a specific purpose. I haven't figured out what that is. But things don't take God by surprise. He didn't say all of a sudden, "Aaaah! Martin and Gracia are hostages, what am I going to do?"

But it took a long time to come to that. We wanted out of there. We wanted our will, not God's will, most of the time.

Do you feel you have a better idea of what life is about?
I think so. I think we're here to bring God glory, and maybe uncomfortableness in some situations brings him glory. How can you understand that? I can't.

Do you feel it, even if you can't understand it?
I do. I feel like Martin's death brought God some glory, or it wouldn't have happened. In the Westminister Cathechism I think it is, they say, "What is the end of man, what's man here for?" And the answer is, we're here to give God glory. Hopefully God got some glory, or that was a big waste of time in the jungle.

When I was in high school, people would say, "You just use religion as a crutch." Then one of the football players would get hurt and he'd come to school the next day with a crutch. And I'd think, crutches aren't a bad thing. When we need a crutch, we get one. We're very needy people and we need mercy , we need grace, and we need God. If Christianity is a crutch, so be it. I need help.

There were times in the jungle when I tried to figure out things on my own. It just led to depression and discouragement. If I could see God's hand in things, that's what led to peace and some joy in the middle of a horrible situation.

How did you try to figure things out for yourself?
Like week ten, I remember very clearly I made a decision that God didn't love me, because if he loved me I'd be out of there. I was miserable, and everyone around me was miserable. Martin came to me and said, "Gracia, I'm just sad to see you giving up your faith like this." I said, "Oh, I'm not giving up my faith, I still believe in Almighty God, and I believe Jesus died for sinners, but I'm going to choose [to say] God doesn't love me, because how does all this fit together?" Martin said, "Why don't you just determine to believe what you know to be true?"

And there are all kinds of Bible verses that say God loves us. I made a conscious decision to believe the Scripture. It made the rest of the captivity not wonderful, but bearable. I was going to lose my mind if I had stayed in that state of anger and bitterness.

One of the images of devout Christians is that they have all the answers-
Oh, yeah, I used to have all the answers. Oh my, I had my theology straight, and I knew what I was all about and what God was all about. I don't have all the answers anymore. I'm much less dogmatic-though you can't tell it from this interview! [Laughs.] I give people a lot more grace than I used to, and leave room for other opinions than mine, in Christendom. I don't think I have all the answers, but I know God, who has all the answers, a lot better than I'd known him before.

As a result of what, specifically? Did a channel open up?
No, I didn't have any big revelations. I learned that a lot of things we think are important really aren't, like having to be in church on Sunday, or getting to church on time even if you're family's a mess. We put ourselves under a lot of pressure to perform and act a certain way that isn't even Christianity. Christianity is knowing the one, true God and walking with him, and knowing who his son Jesus is. It's not all this churchy stuff that we've made up.

Do you ever want to grab people and say "Wake up?"
Sometimes, when I see someone totally stressed out because, you know, their hair didn't do the right thing this morning, or because their kid has a messy room. Who cares? God doesn't care. You are totally accepted by him. Let's stop putting ourselves under so much pressure here.

If you were given a chance to talk to your captors, what would you say?
That depends. If one showed up at my door, I'd invite him in for a meal, but I'd call the FBI too, you know? If I faced them in a court of law, I'd speak the truth against them.

But I think I could see any member of the Abu Sayyaf and not have hatred or bitterness in my heart. They're going to get their judgement in this thing, and I don't think it's going to be pretty. It makes me sad to think what's going to happen to them, if what I believe is true. But I could visit one of those guys and ask how his family's doing.

How is your family doing?
They are just trusting the Lord with this whole thing. The Lord's been really good to us, and we enjoy every day. We're together. My kids thought neither of their parents was coming home. When one of us came home, they decided they were going to be happy. They weren't going to be all upset about the one who didn't. Half's better than nothing. I agree, and we're just having a good time.

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